Seven books that wired my brain differently and made me smarter.
Yesterday, the travel blogging fundraiser Passports with Purpose met its target of $80,000 – and then kept going. Last I heard, they’d overshot by $8,000. And so for everyone who asked me to curry them (keep an eye on your post-Christmas mail, guys) and everyone who donated so generously…
That money will be building 2 libraries for Zambian children, in association with the non-profit literacy organisation Room To Read. All those donations, generated across so many travel blogs and fished out from so many pockets, will be putting books in front of young minds thirsty to learn about the world, filling heads with ideas and hearts with damnfool flights of fancy that might. just. work.Thank you. :)
I started throwing curry around the world because enlibrarying people is a cause that’s important to me – because it touches on the core of who I am. Almost everything I am today, I owe to reading.
Okay. Now, I wrote the above paragraph a few days ago, and immediately rolled my eyes.
Yes, Mike, that’s how to start a post. Revel in your Art. Maybe you can put up a photo of yourself swooning foppishly in a chaise longue, all velvet dressing gown and shinned shoes and a carefully maintained pasty pallor that speaks of an aversion to the Outdoors and its associated Common People. Maybe you can wax about your Great Calling and your desire to end your days tragically and syphilitically fighting for some Noble Cause, filching the Parthenon Marbles to return them to the Greek people before being gunned down in a cloud of wig-powder on the steps of the British Museum…
So I deleted it, and replaced it with something less true.
(Sometimes editing, like second-guessing, can make a mess of what you really meant).
The first adult book I ever read was Lord Of The Rings, and it took me 9 months. It sunk deep. Before that, I read things that taught me the basic mechanics of how to read. After that, I read things that taught me how to think.
Sometimes what I thought was “eh?”. I first fought my way through Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was 14, and it might as well have been in Klingon for all the meaning I got from it. But that was part of the fun, the not-quite-understanding. It’s a delicious feeling. It’s why Haruki Murakami is so popular (that and the beautiful, strange, unpredictable way he writes). Reading above my intellectual capacity taught me the value of being baffled. When you’re baffled, your mind is perversely happy. It likes being baffled. Schools think the key to a well-tuned mind is remembering enormous amounts of stuff, but really, you just need a really good baffling on a regular basis when you’re at an impressionable age.
Good books resonate. Even if you only read a good book once, you experience it many times over. It comes back to you in strange moments, whispers in your ear about social justice and power and ingenuity and hope and faith and believing in yourself and in others, and it speaks in a language your heart understands better than your head. Good books are felt.
(Good bookmarks are also felt. Or soft leather. Failing that, try a nice big leaf).
I could go on. And in fact I intend to – just not right now. Instead, here are 7 books to read that sunk so far into me, for all sorts of reasons, in part or in whole, that I’m indistinguishable from them. They’re not necessarily the ones I found most enjoyable or thought-provoking, and I’m not claiming they’re a Top Ten of any kind. But they have influenced me, deeply. And so these books are keys to why I’m here right now, as Me.
What’s it all about? Oh come on.
Why is it so important to me? My first adult book was an epic journey, and it intoxicated me. I gurgled happily at every page, and the story filled my mind, right to the corners. And perhaps, just perhaps, that’s why I love to travel. If that’s the case – I may end up owing a career to this book. That’s a nice thought.
What’s it all about? The way we argue.
Why is it so important to me? Arguments are important. We need a way to convey differences of opinion. Problem is, most arguments are broken. Either they’re a battle for supremacy or they’re a way of reinforcing already-held opinions. Ever done the thing where you’re not listening to someone because you’re thinking up your next clever retort? Me too. Ever replied to something with the phrase “yes, but…”? After reading this book, I noticed how people do that all the time. “Yes, but…” is usually our fear and insecurity taking over our mouth, closing an open loop in our minds without bothering to explore what’s in it.
“Yes, but…” is how dreams die.
What’s it all about? A boy ends up in a mythical realm in the body of a full-grown knight.
Why is it so important to me? Because, as is usual with Gene Wolfe’s work, it’s effortless to read and challenging to follow. Wolfe has been described by Neil Gaiman as “the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer” – and hey, Neil Gaiman said that. So why is this book so important to me? Because it feels so utterly new in a genre so hackneyed. I’ve spent 30 years loving a genre that spent most of its time Xeroxing its master work. This is different, partly because it’s Gene Wolfe, but partly because it’s just so damn different. Read it. You’ll see.
(Just be prepared to reread it if you want to even partially understand what the hell’s going on).
What’s it all about? What, you didn’t even read the title? FAIL.
Why is it so important to me? Because this isn’t just a series of self-help suggestions on being a more effective whatever-it-is-you-do. It covers that territory, yes, and covers it really cleverly. But the real lesson for me here is simpler, and it’s this:
It’s Smart To Be Nice To People.
This book explains, very clearly, why treating other human beings as human beings is the way to become successful at what you do. It clearly lays out arguments that illustrate this, and it understands how business people work in the real world. Forget the short-sighted nonsense you see in The Apprentice – good business is about building relationships, sparking synergy and employing the kind of leadership that inspires people instead of coercing them. (Yes, this is Seth Godin territory). And all those things require niceness in its truest, strongest, toughest, suffer-no-bullshit sense.
It’s one thing to be told that you should be good to other people because, you know, you just should.
It’s another to have it convincingly laid out as a tool for success.
And that’s what this book is for.
What’s it all about? The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the terrible things humans can do to one another. (That’s for starters).
Why is it so important to me? Because it was the first book where I so thoroughly fell in love with the writing that I couldn’t put it down. I’d fallen into stories before – but in this case, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from what he was doing with the words, the language, the shape and the flow of it all. I went back and reread sections, again and again, poring over them like an English Lit student cramming for exams. I became infatuated with his writing (and I still am).
In fact I had to read everything twice, or else I’d have missed the story – which is devastating.
What’s it all about? A far-future world that has forgotten its technological skills and lapsed into a futuristic medievalism is faced with a cosmic threat. The main characters get drawn into a race to reactive the “Feersum Endjinn” of the title and save their world.
Why is it so important to me? Not because it’s a brilliantly written piece of scifi (which it is). No – the reason this book really got to me is the ending, which explains what the Feersum Endjinn does in the final word of the whole book. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to end a story.
What’s it all about? Travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban takes a 35-foot boat up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, tracing the course of Captain Vancouver’s famous voyage of 1792 in the Discovery.
Why is it so important to me? I’ve never read anything better in the field of travel writing. It’s also heartbreakingly personal – by journey’s end, he’ll have attended his father’s funeral and witnessed the breakup of his marriage. It’s a soulful, sardonic, prickly and keenly felt piece of writing, and its message is unsettling: you can choose your destination, but you have little control over how you’ll get there.