Dec 15, 2015

Five Books I Loved in 2015

One of my goals for 2015 was to read more books.

As someone who grew up doing the majority of my nonfiction reading on the Internet, I’ve been increasingly realizing that books are a better use of my time. They typically contain deeper, more coherent thinking than most blog posts and news articles, and I also retain information better when I read it in a book, probably because I spend a longer period of time thinking about a set of related ideas.

Even though I still spent way too much time on my smartphone, I managed to be mildly successful at achieving my goal, which is a better result than I can report for most of my New Year’s Resolutions! Here are five books that I most enjoyed reading this year.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg (2012)

A lot of the actions we take, from our morning routines to how we spend our workdays and weekends, aren’t really active choices – they’re driven by our habits. In a fun Gladwellian read, Duhigg leans on a solid body of research and anecdotes to explain in detail how habits actually work, and then builds on this understanding to demonstrate how to form and modify them.

One concept I found particularly interesting was the idea of “keystone habits”. It turns out that seemingly small changes to a daily routine have been shown to have a surprisingly positive effect – for example, “Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.” It’s not the action itself that’s important, but rather the act of sticking with a habit, that seems to have a chain reaction. I now think of keystone habits as a kind of life hack to help with habit formation in many aspects of life.

The book is split into three parts where Duhigg applies these ideas to individuals, institutions, and then societies at large. I found the third chapter to be too much of a stretch, but it’s well worth a read for the first two.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (2011)

The only fiction book in my top five – I was so riveted by this short, meditative novel that I read it in one sitting on an airplane. It’s narrated by Tony Webster, an old man who’s lived a full life, and follows his mental journey through decades of memories, reflecting and re-interpreting them.

The book elegantly captures the significance of mundane events in our lives and embraces the unreliability of memory, imbuing its descriptions with the haziness of time. By the time I was finished, some moments in Tony’s life felt like moments from my own past, in the way that you sometimes recall blurry images from a dream in the early hours of the morning.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (2012)

Cain’s thesis is that our society overvalues extroverted qualities at its own peril. Her book is a guide to understanding what the introvert/extrovert spectrum really means (hint: introverts aren’t necessarily shy), and looks at the benefits of introversion in the workplace, in personal life, and in society as a whole. As someone with some introverted qualities, I found it to be a useful blueprint for reflecting on my own temperament and thinking about how to make the most of my personality.

Favorite quote: “As the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: ‘The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc^2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.’”

The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker (2014)

When you think of a writing style guide, you probably think of a boring compilation of arcane grammar rules. Steven Pinker takes great delight in throwing that stereotype out the window with this holistic, modern, and readable approach to the genre. “An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp…Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography?”

Indeed, more cooking show host than drill sergeant, Pinker shares some examples of his favorite writing, explains how to use the beautiful “classic style,” and has fun beating up some atrocious examples of overwrought academic writing. He also incorporates his background in linguistics to explain precisely why some sentences are easier to understand than others. This in turn provides systematic approaches to making one’s writing better, as opposed to my typical tactic of trying some things and seeing if the result feels better.

This is a book that I’ll continue to reference for a long time.

From Beirut to Jerusalem, by Thomas Friedman (1989)

I must admit I started this hefty book recently and haven’t finished it yet, but it had to make it on the list. Given the recent turmoil in Syria, I wanted to bolster my limited knowledge about the modern history of the region, and a friend recommended this book as a starting point. I was familiar with Friedman’s more recent work but didn’t know that he was the New York Times’ correspondent in Lebanon, and then Israel, for most of the 80s.

Friedman’s account of his time in the region seamlessly weaves together personal experiences (ranging from hundreds of interviews to the day his apartment building was blown up in Beirut) with broader analysis of the geopolitical events that were transpiring around him, making for a compelling read. One particularly gripping chapter tells the story of the 1982 massacre in Hama, Syria, where Hafez al-Assad, the president at the time, massacred tens of thousands of innocent civilians to make a political point. Of course, this history is also sadly relevant today.

Friedman succeeds in painting an objective picture that evenly criticizes all sides (including self-aware criticism of Israel as a Jew), and the book has received wide acclaim partially for that reason. However, as others have noted, he does have an annoying tendency to make trite generalizations that achieve entertainment at the cost of nuance. My favorite quote so far, which perfectly illustrates his style: “[Peres, Rabin, and Shamir, three prime ministers of Israel] would have made good governors for Rhode Island or Delaware, but Rhode Island and Delaware are not faced with monumental existential questions and terrible moral dilemmas.”

Even if you’re not a fan of Friedman’s recent work, I would recommend this book as one good starting point for understanding the Middle East. I’m actively on the lookout for other viewpoints about the region, so send me recommendations!