Books I've read recently(ish) - July-October

The summer and beginning of the new school year proved busy, but I managed to squeeze in some reading.

Mindset - Carol Dweck

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This book is the spark of a recent trend in education and psychology that confirms what we've all long suspected: The key to success is believing you can grow and change. The author breaks the world into two groups. The first is those who believe that nothing about their personal character is 'fixed'. Instead they believe that their intelligence, strength, charisma, and other character stats are--to some degree--malleable. The second...well...doesn't.

You can guess who this author is rooting for.

The premise is a great one, and--like so many non-fiction books--the first few chapters are riveting. Still, Carol Dweck spends the majority of the book showing the reader how the growth mindset can be applied to sports, businesses, relationships, education, and countless subdivisions thereof. The result is monotonous, with lots of evidence supporting Dweck's research, and very little practical application beyond the implied, 'believe you can change.'

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

This may be the worst book I've ever loved. At its core, the story is of a young man who finds himself suddenly in the running to win a life-changing contest. The heart of the novel, though, lies in the author's artisan command of esoteric 80s trivia. It's a light read that is enjoyable for the same reasons the movies of your youth were: it sheds all pretension and devotes itself to being fun. 

Readers beware, though--reading this book WILL compel you to download dozens of hours of 80s movies that you will spend the next month forcing your wife to watch.

Elon Musk - Ashlee Vance

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Elon Musk is a fascinating character, and this book does him justice. Compiled from hundreds of interviews with those who have had contact with Musk (Musk himself was resistant to a biography), and finally confirmed, amended, and added to by Musk himself (once he saw that publication was inevitable), the result is a long yarn following Musk from his childhood in South Africa, through PayPay, Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City. 

The final product--like Musk himself--is a well-weaved tale of risk, failure, success, and--possibly--triumph. 

Greece and Turkey

My wife and I spent a large part of this summer travelling between Greece and Turkey. The trip was a good one, but--like most travel books--these proved to only prepare us at the most superficial level.

The joy of travelling is thinking on your feet as you encounter new situations. The sites are fine, but the best parts of our trip were speaking with young disenfranchised Greeks living in a country on the verge of economic collapse, and (later) running with Turks as a demonstration at the heart of Istanbul was broken up with canisters of tear gas. 

While both of these texts provided a good satellite view of where we would be going, they were largely ignored as we stumbled between the two countries.

Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Ender's Shadow - Orson Scott Card

I'm not sure why I haven't come to Orson Scott Card and Ender before this. I fell into Ender's Game sometime early this summer, and tore through it. The story captured me from the start, and I delighted in following Ender through his trials.

The books take a decided dip after this, though. Ender's shadow--while offering iFodors ts own perspective--is not the book that Game is. Speaker is its own animal entirely (and--according to Card, the novel he originally set out to write). Neither live up to the original.

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

This is the most riveting book I've read in years. I tend to steer away from fantasy because the imagined worlds of their authors often have too-high of entry costs and I grow impatient. Rothfuss was recommended to me enough over the past year, though, that I could no longer ignore him. I'm very glad I made the plunge.

Rothfuss does many things well, but he writes about love and heartbreak in a startlingly beautiful way. His scenes where his main character falls in love are so poetic and pure that I found myself reading them aloud to my wife. It is testament to Rothfuss that she didn't grow tired of this.

Books I read in April, May, and June

My reading took a noticeable nosedive in the last two months of the school year. The main reason for this is that I abandoned my morning reading with coffee. Books stopped grabbing my attention and I quickly lost the habit. This summer has seen a mild resurgence and a return to form, but my production is way, way down.

With that said...

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Essentialism - Greg McKeown

I plan to post Book Notes on this one in the coming weeks, but the short of it is this: Essentialism is about determining what is important in your life and then structuring your time in a way to maximally service that one thing. In this regard, Essentialism's thesis is more or less identical to The One Thing. Essentialism is The One Thing if The One Thing didn't suck.

The book does a much better job of defending it's thesis. It runs into similar problems as The One Thing (and Getting Things Done [below])--mainly that you can fit all of the important information in this book on the back of a few index cards. Still, McKeown supports his thesis with evidence and livens his narrative with anecdotes. 

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

The next two entries are a large reason for my decreased productivity during the final months of the school year. I taught both TKAM and Grapes of Wrath. I've read TKAM before, but I try to re-read texts with my students when time allows. This took up a large piece of my time.

I won't say much about it here. What is there to say that hasn't been said. It was excellent the first time I read it. It was even better this time through. 

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

When I told my dad that I was teaching the Grapes of Wrath to my Junior/Senior American Literature class, he said, "Why don't you save them the trouble and have them slit their wrists now?" At that point--not having read GoW yet--I didn't understand just how spot-on that remark was.

The Grapes of Wrath is Depressing. It's dang depressing. It follows the Joad family in Dust-Bowl-era Oklahoma as they leave their farm and move out west to find work. Along the way they encounter crime, starvation, murder, and oh-so-much death.

The underlying theme is one of hopefulness. The book is meant to show the resiliance of the human spirit in the face of all adversity, but jesus christ it's painful getting there.

Students hate this book. I can understand why, but I would contest that students don't read it correctly. This book is a slow burn. It is remarkably good and pulling you into it. The long, dismal chapters allow you to experience life as the Joads. Sitting in your chair, you feel a despair settling around you. Not much happens. Not much is supposed to happen. It doesn't vie for a reader's attention like a plot-heavy book might, but there is a quiet urgency in its pages.

Still, it's hard to sell high schoolers on terms like 'soft despair' and 'quiet urgency.' It's a book that--while as timely as ever--does not compete well in a world with constant demands on our attention.

Getting Things Done - David Allen

This book is a classic in the world of productivity. It was assigned as homework to me by the excellent Hello Internet podcast produced by CGP Grey and Brady Haran. Listen to the linked podcast for a full review, but--like Brady--I found this book tedious.

From my point of view, it suffers from a pair of problems. The first is personal: One of the reasons I found GTD so tedious is that I've already adopted--more or less--a comparable system. For a year now I've been using the Bullet Journal system. It's what I came across first, but--after reading GTD--it is very clear to me that it is based on the GTD system.

The second problem is structural. This is another book the suffers from the Index Card Problem. GTD has established itself as a classic in the field, but that doesn't change the reality that the hundreds of pages could be condensed down to a handful of index cards and almost nothing would be lost. Don't beleive me? Read this: Getting Things Done in 15 Minutes


Books I read in March

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

This book is a bit of a personal memoir of Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist most famous--perhaps--for The Feynman Lectures, a series of easy-to-understand talks about relatively complex topics in Physics. His unique combination of dizzying intelligence and laid-back persona is attractive.

Surely You're Joking is an account of his life from the time he, as a grad student, worked on The Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and through much of his professional career. It has moments where it seems like Feynman is bragging about being oh-so-smart, but he's completely forgiven when you realize that he actually is oh-so-smart.

Interesting man. Interesting book.

 

The One Thing

This book was recommended via the Bigger Pockets Podcast. It was written by the founder if Keller Williams, the US's largest real estate company, and--well, it's a bit laborious.

The premise? Our attention is divided, and we will have better results if we pare down everything in our lives--all the stresses, all the worries, all the work that surrounds us--to just one problem to come back to. This one problem, then, becomes a mantra for you. Whenever something pulls at your attention, ask yourself, Does this support my ONE thing? If it does, great! Keep on going. If it doesn't, pass the stresses by.

The premise is fine. It speaks to my heart.

The problem is that beyond what I've written here, the book says almost nothing else.

It turns out to be a frustrating book completely devoid of examples, anecdotes, or engaging material besides the repetition of the One thing.

Books I Read in February

Benjamin Franklin - Walter Isaacson

This book was long. It was dang long. I've read it once before--back when I was first married--but, as usual, I had forgotten most of it. It is, just like the first time, excellent.

Benjamin Franklin is a hero of mine. I teach large swaths of his Autobiography in my American Literature class, and his relentless 'Americanness' sets the tone for much of the course. Re-reading this biography now, it's remarkable to once again see just how much of being an American we take straight from Ben's life. Our work ethic, to our bootstrap mentality, to productivity tracking and self-improvement. These are American Things, and they started with Ben.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

On the theme of American classics, I devoted a large chunk of time to re-reading this classic. It is the first time I've taught it, and it's been many years since I've read it.

Surprises? Well, it's not exactly how I remember. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that it's not how most of us remember it.

We remember the story of Huck Finn as a boy and his slave floating lazily down the Mississippi. They lay in the sun, they fish, and they generally make merriment. It's a wonderfully idyllic tale about the virtues of sloth and contentedness.

Yeah, except this isn't what happens at all. In fact, Huck Finn is--mostly--about a smart young boy repeatedly finding himself in life-threatening situations that are almost never his fault. It's a critical look at society that deals with race, morality, death, deceit, and every other unsavory circumstance under the sun. Good read.

We remember the story of Huck Finn as a boy and his slave floating lazily down the Mississippi. They lay in the sun, they fish, and they generally make merriment. It's a wonderfully idyllic tale about the virtues of sloth and contentedness.

Yeah, except this isn't what happens at all. In fact, Huck Finn is--mostly--about a smart young boy repeatedly finding himself in life-threatening situations that are almost never his fault. It's a critical look at society that deals with race, morality, death, deceit, and every other unsavory circumstance under the sun. Good read.

10% Happier - Dan Harris

This was the most impactful book I read this month. To be fair, it is also the only book I read this month that I had never read before. The premise: a bit of mindfulness can make you 10% happier.

I had no idea who Dan Harris was, but the pitch is engaging, and the book had made it's way into my queue. A recommendation from a fellow English teacher bumped it to the top.

While the book is ostensibly about meditation. In reality, it's a bit of a mixed-bag. It is a book about meditation intermingling with the personal experience of Dan Harris, a news anchor who was looking to calm his quiet mind. The most engaging parts of Happier are the parts where Harris is telling personal stories about what led him to seek mindfulness. A hyper-competitive work environment, jet-setting, war-reporting, cocaine-fueled nightlife: Harris had a busy, busy mind.

I always struggle with books like this. I think the lessons are grounded in reality. I wholeheartedly believe (hell, there's science) that daily meditation has a plethora of benefits. Still, books like this teeter on new-age, and very little sets off my bullshit detector like new age does.

Still, much of Harris' charm is his candid thoughts on similar struggles. He speaks at length about pushing past the bullshit factor, and the end advice he gives strikes a refreshing balance between real-world and new age.

My takeaway? Well, I haven't started meditating. At least, I haven't started meditating in earnest. I have taken many moments since reading Happier to pause, reflect, and follow my breath through several wanderings. Even this simple practice provides momentary stillness in a hectic mind. I see the value of meditation, but I don't see it making its way into my routine anytime soon.

Books I Read in January

My blistering December pace slowed back to reality with the end of Winter Break and the beginning of a new teaching semester. Still, I managed to pound through four books in the month, which is nothing to sneeze at.

As You Wish - Stories from the Set of The Princess Bride.

This was an enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Princess Bride. It followed Author Cary Elwes from the time he received hint he might be cast as Wesley to the end of production. It didn't shatter any walls for me as a literary work, but it was fun to get an in-depth look at a movie so many of us love so much. Especially heartwarming were tales about Andre the Giant passing out on the floor of a hotel lobby, Wallace Shawn's (who is apparently incredibly intelligent in the real world as well as in Florin and Guilder) self-critical anxiety, and WIlliam Goldman's nervous knots over turning his pride and joy into a feature film.

The Princess Bride

As You Wish sparked a desire to revisit an old friend. I first read The Princess Bride as a senior in High School after being told by a Chemistry teacher that the book is nothing like the film. In my mind, I remember this being the case, but now I'm not sure why I thought so. The ending is morbidly different, but other than that the book is a nearly scene-by-scene preview for the film--right down to the memorable dialogue (Does anybody want a peanut?).

The scene that stood out most to me now was the same scene that stood out most to me then. It's where the reader receives some Inigo Montoya backstory. The following scene happens when Inigo returns to an old mentor after training for his revenge:

""I'll tell you the truth, and it's up to you to live with it. First, there has never been a master as young as you. Thirty years at least before that rank has yet been reached, and you are barely twenty-two. Well, the truth is you are an impetuous boy driven by madness and you are not now and you will never be a master."

"Thank you for your honesty," Inigo said. "I must tell you I had hoped for better news. I find it very hard to speak just now, so if you'll please excuse me, I'll be on my..."

"I had not finished," Yeste said.

"What else is there to say?"

"I loved your father very dearly, that you know, but this you did not know: when we were very young, not yet twenty, we saw, with our own eyes, an exhibition by the Corsican Wizard, Bastia."

"I know of no wizards."

"It is the rank beyond master in swordsmanship," Yeste said. "Bastia was the last man so designated. Long before your birth, he died at sea. There have been no wizards since, and you would never in this world have beaten him. But I tell you this: he would never in this world have beaten you."

Tingles then; tingles now.

Flash Boys

Probably the best book I read this month, it's a story about Billions have been made fractions of a penny at a time. It tells the story of how high-frequency trading has radically altered the face of the stock market in the last ten years. HFT is a massively profitable endeavor for the major players. The problem? The profits have come entirely at the expense of the average investor.

The best chapters in Flash Boys follow Brad Katsuyama and his rag-tag group of outliers as they try to reestablish a fair system in which stocks can be traded. Lewis excels at painting the characters as a group of outside-the-fray vigilantes, and manages to tell a riveting story--no small job considering that most of the major events happen in millionths of a second. 

Rich Dad, Poor Dad

A personal finance classic, Rich Dad, Poor Dad gives (what is now established as) commonplace investment advice told through the framing device of the author's two 'Dads'. One, his biological father, is a University professor who leads a good life but who is always struggling for money. The second, his friends biological father, has only an eighth grade education, but grows to be one of the wealthiest men in Hawaii.

The author spends the meat of the book expounding on his Dads' conflicting financial philosophies and synthesizing them in to a handful of financial rules to live by. The most important?

  1. Always buy assets (things that generate income like property, businesses, etc.), not liabilities.
  2. There is a system in place that punishes 'Rat Race' money managers. Every financial decision you make should work toward changing the rules of the game in your favorf.
    • This is the situation for those in lower income brackets:Job (providing income) is less than expenses (taxes, food, rent, clothes)No Assets, No Liabilities
    • Compare that situation to the wealthy: Assets (stocks, bonds, notes, intellectual property) are greater than income (from job). No Liabilities.

  3. Work to Learn, don't work for money.

Personal finance aficionados might find the advice mundane, but for wealths and wealths of people out there, it is not common sense. While the tenets might not suit every reader, the book is a great launching point toward changing your financial attitude.

Books I Read in December

The beginning of December sparked a kind of reading renaissance for me. December turned out to be a productive reading month.

Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This is the third book from the Freakonomics duo. It deviates from their tried and true formula of explaining certain phenomena, and instead focuses on the type of thinking that allows insight into tricky problems. It's an interesting book, and gives some startling insights to how these problems should be examined.

 

 

So Good They Can't Ignore You - Cal Newport

The best book I read all month, and one I've reflected on at length elsewhere. It starts with a unique premise: 'Follow your passion' is perhaps the worst advice we can give people. For a variety of reasons, this resonated with me.

Newport, an Georgetown professor and Study Hacks blogger, spends the rest of the book talking about his alternative for finding a career you love: Get damn good at the one you've got.

 

Where Good Ideas Come From - Steven Johnson

A good book with a premise that I was already familiar with. Johnson takes a look at the history of good ideas and examines what they have in common. He breaks the task into seven distinct features: The adjacent possible, Liquid networks, The slow hunch, Serendipity, Error, Exaptation, and Platforms.

In short:

  1. Get great at what you do
  2. Saturate yourself with information
  3. Put yourself in an environment that encourages you to slam in to people who are also great and saturated.

Born Standing Up - Steve Martin

Steve Martin's autobiography that explores his growth from mediocre to memorable. It's well-told by Martin, and an engaging read from front to back. 

Martin realized at a young age that humor comes from a tension in the audience. Laughter is the release of that tension. Martin wondered: 'What would happen if I never let the audience release?'

Then he spent 10 years making people uncomfortable.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work - Mason Currey

This book was interesting enough, but lost it's charm early-on.

The book is composed of a series of vignettes detailing how notable people spend their creative days. A wonderful premise, and it becomes clear very early on that there is no one recipe for success.

It's fascinating to read about some of your heroes, but the nature of the narrative makes it a repetitive read. Best consumed in small sips.

Sam Walton: Made in America - Sam Walton with John Huey

This book was wonderful.

Written in the year before his death, it reads as if Grandpa Sam is sitting you down and telling you a nice story about a corner store he started.

And in a lot of ways that's what Walmart is. The story follows Sam from the time he is a young man to the year of his death. It follows the evolution of Walmart from a corner five-and-dime to the behemoth it is today. The two narratives proceed lockstep, making it clear that the life of one is the life of the other.

It's been on my radar since reading The Everything Store, a parallel story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. I would wholeheartedly recommend either.

How to Not Be Wrong - Jordan Ellenberg

An interesting book that is one part Freakonomics and one part Nate Silver, this is a mathematical look that seeks to redefine being right.

The math gets a bit thick in pages (admittedly, I struggle with even the simplest equations). I chose to take Ellenberg for his mathamatical word, and breeze through the pages of proofs to the juicy narrative and analysis. Ellenberg encourages his readers to embrace complexity, and view the world through a prism of logic.This was the real strength of the text. 

So Good They Can't Ignore You

So Good They Can't Ignore You

You've heard the advice: Follow your passion and the money will come. You may have even acted on it.

Cal Newport, in So Good They Can't Ignore You, argues that this advice is dead-wrong. 

Not only is it wrong, but Newport argues that it is EXACTLY opposite of the advice we should be giving people. In short: following your passion is a sucker's bet.

This idea is slightly distressing for me. More distressing still is that Newport makes a pretty-dang-good argument.

The Argument against 'follow your passion' goes like this:

  1. Preexisting passions are exceedingly rare.
  2. Too frequently, when preexisting passions do exist, they don't create sufficient value.
  3. Telling people to 'follow your passion' creates anxiety. Why don't I love my job? Am I wasting my life? How can I be happy if my job isn't my passion?
  4. People who put their passions first rarely find that 'passion' is enough fuel to pull them through the nitty-gritty of what it takes to 'make it.'
  5. When studying people who DO love their jobs (and he studies a lot of them), Newport finds that in nearly every case passion came after these people put in the hard work to get great at something valuable.
  6. Because of all this, Newport arrives at the conclusion that WHAT you do is FAR less important than HOW you do it. 

The point was well-argued, and--for many reasons--makes me uneasy.

Why It Matters

In 2007, I earned an English degree from one of the best public universities in the nation. While in school, I actively made a series of choices that would lead me away from the poorly-paid-but-attainable job of teaching (ironically, a job that I would turn out to do--and love--many years later), and down the path of publishing. This was a risky move. Working in publishing was akin to volunteerism at the time, and jobs in the field (even in the heady days of 2007) were tough to come by. I fielded constant concerns from friends and family about prospects, and to each I responded with what has long-been my mantra: There will always be room for the best.

Upon graduating, I immediately landed a job as an Associate Editor for a small trade magazine. I had an office, a team of freelance writers, and a managing editor who was a massive prick. It was exactly what I had always wanted.

And I hated it. 

This was terrifying. I was 23 years old. I had followed my passion, eschewing many practical--even lucrative--paths to pursue degree in writing. And three months in to my dream job, I despised it to such a degree that I dreaded going to sleep at night because I knew that when I work up the next morning, I would have to go to work.

So what happened?

What Happened.

The short answer is that I wasn't as good as I thought I was.

In Newport-speak, I hadn't adapted the Craftsman Mindset. I was worried about having a great job (which I defined as a job I could be passionate about), and not worried about HOW I COULD BE GREAT at my job. 

To be happy, we can't focus on great. To be happy we have to strive to be great.

Applying the Principles

Six months later, I was fired. I was devastated. By this point, my ego was buttressed by my job as an editor. Not only that, but I was engaged to my now-wife, a girl who was--and who remains--considerably out of my league.

I reevaluated. I moved to be closer to home, and I took a much more modest (but considerably better-paying) job as a proofreader and editor for a large military contractor. This came with it's own problems (particularly those with autonomy, mastery, and purpose), but it set me down the right path.

Five years later I'm a teacher. It's a career I love. More importantly, it's a career that allows me to get better every single day.

I stand by my mantra. There will always be room for the best. What I failed to realize as a 23-year-old, newly-minted editor is that I wasn't the best. Hell, I was barely good. To be the best requires an obsessive commitment to improvement.

The advice of So Good They Can't Ignore You applies to every area of life. I'm still not the best, but I think I'm pretty-dang-good. More importantly, I'm getting better every day.