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What I’ve been reading this month

The Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations felt lift-changing for me. As you no doubt know, this was essentially the personal notebook of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from the second century AD. This is not something I would ever have dreamed of picking up if I hadn’t previously stumbled across some of Seneca’s essays and thoroughly enjoyed them. Meditations contains no essays, just brief points, observations and reflections on life. For that reason, I expected not to enjoy it as much, as I typically like to read arguments that are developed and explained. Yet it took me ages to get through the 200 tiny pages of this book because of the capacity for one of Aurelius’s points to completely change my perspective on something going on in my day-to-day life. I cannot think of any other book I’ve ever read that has held that power. People may think I’m a complete doofus for not reading and appreciating this sooner, and they may well roll their eyes at my naivety of feeling this strongly about this particular volume, but I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read that has been as profoundly affecting at this one.

Axel Lindén’s On Sheep (or Fårdagboken), translated by Frank Perry, was a short meditative diary of Lindén’s transformation from Stokholm lecturer to rural Swedish shepherd. Despite its length, I found it completely transporting and Lindén seemed wholly endearing. He described his shepherding role in minute detail at times, and reflected profoundly on all sorts of aspects of life and happiness. There was also a good dose of wit. I would never have expected to enjoy a book on Swedish farming nearly this much. This book will live long in the memory.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes knocked me a bit sideways and had a real emotional punch. I had no idea what it was about when I started reading, and perhaps because of that, the progress of the story was very unexpected. It is, in a nutshell, the story of a relationship, told with masterful characterisation and fantastic prose. I really enjoyed this.

TM, by Mark Sinclair, was a large format hardback describing the stories behind the development of 29 famous logos. Some of these stories were new to me whereas others have been repeated often in many formats. There was a bit of a British skew in the logos discussed, including British Rail, British Steel, Tate, V&A, the National Theatre and London Underground – but I found that interesting as it meant the logos were largely familiar to me. This was a beautifully produced book, and some of the stories were quite enlightening.

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter was a stunning coffee table book containing beautiful photography and page layouts. It provided an annotated libretto for the blockbuster musical Hamilton, along with chapters on the development of the musical and so forth. Of course, the libretto was exceptionally good and drew on a hugely eclectic range historical, literary and pop culture sources to reference. But I knew all of that before I bought the book: I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show and have listened to the cast album many times. And, in nutshell, I didn’t get a whole lot more out of this. It was a wonderful souvenir of the musical, but I don’t think I learned a lot more or gained any particularly new insights from it.

David Szalay’s All That Man Is contained Nine short stories of men away from home having crises of confidence, each a little older than the last. There were lots of thematic connections between the stories, but somehow they still didn’t seem to add up to more than just nine stories, which left me feeling a bit disappointed (even though the writing was really good).

This 2,339th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

In The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Tennessee Williams wove a complex tale with lots of moral uncertainty from a relatively straightforward (and short) plot. The plot concerned the relationships between an aging actress whose career has just ended in a somewhat hubristic flop and a cast of other characters, including her recently deceased husband, the wealthy Contessa, a beautiful gigolo and an equally, if not more, beautiful but possibly homeless male stalker. I found it filled with a deliciously cruel and cynical wit, and it made me reflect on far more than a novella typically would: the nature of aging, how people find their role in life after major changes happen, the meaning of beauty, how well we understand others motivations (and how often we are in self-denial about them), the insecurities of inter-generational romances, and more besides. I think this one is going to stick with me for a while.

Another short book – really no more than an extended essay – I read this month was Lying by Sam Harris. Harris’s thesis was that lying is almost never the morally correct course of action, and that ‘white lies’ in particular can be far more damaging than they seem. It was an interesting argument made with conviction, and it too has caused me to think and reflect quite a lot.

Matthew Walker’s mega best-seller Why We Sleep was both great and disappointing. It made me think differently about sleep and convinced me that sufficient high quality sleep is required to maintain optimal health. It described a lot of interesting and ingenious sleep studies, and the writing style was engaging. But Walker’s misuse of statistics – quoting only relative risks, and sometimes even relative risks before correction for confounders – really riled me, and left me uncertain as to whether the dramatic claim that sleep deprivation ‘is the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations’ was a reasoned conclusion or an exaggeration intended to sell books.

The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan W Watts’s almost 70-year-old best-selling and much-loved book on modern philosophy did nothing for me. I felt that it lack any cohesive structure and meandered between disparate ideas without ever really diving in to examine any of them. The central argument is something along the lines of “we live in a world filled with insecurity, so live only for the present moment”. Even the prose felt clunky to me. Had it not been so short, I would have given up on it.

This 2,338th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

All That Remains by Professor Dame Sue Black was a gripping read. Black essentially described her lifelong relationship with death, from deaths which affected her personally, deaths she investigated in her role as a world-leading forensic anthropologist, and even her thoughts about her own death. Not remotely morbid or maudlin, Black’s enthusiasm for anatomy and forensic pathology shone though, as did her wicked sense of humour. I really enjoyed this book.

I read Jane Austen’s Emma after work colleagues expressed shock that I’ve never read any of her work. I was left pretty conflicted. I raced through it, and I think I enjoyed reading it. However, I loathed almost all of the characters, and the manipulative snob of a protagonist in particular. This left a bitter taste.

I enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s follow up to The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, but not quite as much as the original. It was noticeably longer than the first volume, but someone felt as though it covered less ground, and naturally felt less original. I’ll still pick up the third volume when it’s published.

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better was a wonderfully atmospheric thriller full of pleasingly complex characters. It was narrated by a man in his 30s, retelling horrific events which occurred during a visit to Leeds with his father when he was 12 years old. There was a good dash of horror in there, but at heart, this was an interesting reflection on the nature of parent-child relationships.

I’m sure I’ve read F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby before, and I read it again this month. I could barely remember any of it, and on re-reading, I’m not surprised. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t feel any great connection to this book. It just sort of passed before my eyes, leaving no real impression at all (neither good nor bad).

John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism left me a bit conflicted. There were passages which made me see aspects of religion and atheism differently and changed my thinking. There were others that went above my head, I’m afraid: as someone with no particular background in philosophy or religion, some of it was just too technical for me. I left this book unable to give even a thumbnail sketch of the different types of Atheism despite each having its own chapter, which I guess says something about the book. But there were some great bits.

This 2,337th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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