Until recently, I devoted a significant chunk of my professional life to reviewing new books and interviewing authors. Thanks to choice, whim and shifts in focus, I hardly do much of either nowadays; this means that I can read books that somehow relate to projects I’m working on or things I’m curious about that might be not be right off the presses (books being reviewed tend to have just been released, which can be exciting but can be very limiting). It’s still, in some shape or form, often reading for work, but the attendant pleasure is a deeper and more vibrant and altogether more freeing one.
In a year in which I’ve found the noise, frenzy, commercialism and cynicism of social media become almost impossibly repugnant, many of the books I’ve read have been valuable, insightful, inspiring or at least moving.
I’m certainly no Luddite, but I am in the midst of a re-calibration and re-consideration of why and how I use tech. In the past months, I’ve gained a renewed sense of joy, peace, focus and contentment in the book, both in terms of content and concept — whether on the backlit screen of my Kindle or (as is my preference) on printed pages.
In 2017, Tara Brach’s exquisite summation of mindfulness’s key principles, Radical Acceptance, proved to be an incredible lodestar, a source of comfort and nourishment, a powerful reminder of the power of presence, of self-compassion and lovingkindness, and of stopping for a moment (or longer) to pause. This year, I’ve returned to the book, reading the odd paragraph here and there to be reminded of its riches. I also, in 2018, built on this philosophical/psychological foundation with the incredible Happy by Derren Brown – which explores the evolution of happiness through ages, and suggests a blueprint or framework for this elusive quality that is inspired by the evergreen wisdom of the ancient Stoics. For me, Happy was the other side of Radical Acceptance’s coin. The synergy/overlap/resonance of Stoic philosophy and mindful Buddhist thinking – of East and West – was as enlightening as it was useful.
The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson provided a fascinating outline of the neuroscience research that support’s meditation and mindfulness’s effectiveness as tools to tackle depression, anxiety, stress and boost happiness, performance and wellbeing. Rigorous, clear-sighted and inspiring.
I also really loved Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, which looks at the way tech and modern life is making us (or making us even more) anxious and sick, and what we can do about it. Smart, sweet, gentle and wise. (And wonderfully digestible too.)
Having packed just a Kindle on my Camino trek in May gave me the opportunity to try to finish Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket. I couldn’t. I admire the noble intentions, but the preachiness and obsessive promotion of 12-step programmes got too much for me. I re-read The Art of Stillness (also on my Kindle) by Pico Iyer, though. It’s slimness belies the rich wisdom it contains – about the power of accepting your reality, slowing down, finding quiet – all themes which I’ve been preoccupied with lately and which many of the titles above deal with.
I’ve just finished Deep Work by Cal Newport – which resonates with Planet with its encouragement of getting off social media and being careful about how we use email and addictive apps. But Newport’s arguments focus – convincingly – on the potential this has to allow time and space in which to produce creative, innovative and original work.
Michael Lewis makes well-researched, fascinating non-fiction look so effortless. His latest, The Fifth Risk, a somewhat skinny volume, is fascinating – I loved learning about how federal government supports society, innovation and safety in the US in various ways (and was alarmed to read about the ways in which the Trump administration could imperil these achievements).
As I’m working on an autobiographical project, I swallowed up The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. It was smart, witty, vivid and full of advice but perhaps less useful than I’d hoped.
2018 was, for me, unusually light on fiction. I did get round to the last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child – having eked them out gradually, and loved each previous volume. Child rounded off the saga well, I thought – it was less moving than the second or third, perhaps, but addictively satisfying nonetheless.
While in London, I read Ali Smith’s marvellous Autumn. Poetically, vividly, truthfully, humorously, achingly it captured the Britain of today in all its post-referendum topsy-turvy fucked-upness.
Tim Winton is one of my all-time favourite writers – his sentences are muscular and taut but so wonderfully evocative and lyrical. He is my gold standard; I hope one day I’ll write as well as he does. I’ve got The Shepherd’s Hut, his latest, waiting for me. This year, I read his Breath and it stayed with me – in a lingering, bittersweet, haunting way – for weeks.
Back to memoir. I’ve become obsessed with the novelist Deborah Levy. I gobbled up her two memoirs, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and The Cost of Living (the latter was released this year) in quick succession. Both are fierce, elegant, funny, angry. Wondrous. They are such special reminders of how words and stories take up space (and enable us to as well); they give us a voice, they let us speak, they let us be. If we let them, if we use them. These books were very close to home. Thank you, Deborah.