February 10, 2021

10 Transformative Books from 2020

These books provided insights, reflection, and even some tear-shedding.

All are available at your local bookstore, or consider purchasing off my Bookshop.org link.

Quiet, Susan Cain

More highlighter ink was on the page than black by the time I was done with this book. A transformative look at how we as a culture have come to over-rely on loud and proud talkers and under-rely on people who might have incredible ideas, but are less likely to share them in group settings.

The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry

Again, the yellow font on the front of this book might as well have been a premonition for the amount of highlighter I would expel on the pages within. Perry’s relatively unique position as a cis straight male who dresses as a woman, alongside a no-bullshit but unendingly eloquent style of writing, makes this book unputdownable for anyone interested in grappling with how men are navigating the place society has put them in the modern day.

The Year 1000: An Englishman's Year, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

A detailed and endlessly enjoyable look at what life was like for the average person in Post-Viking, Anglo-Saxon England in the turn of the “first” (post Christ) millenium.

I found, stuck inside during a pandemic, that this was a salve for my existential angst. I dreamt at night of a simpler, if not easier, time.

Self Made Man, Norah Vincent

How many times have I mentioned this book in conversation over the last 12 months? Too many. So much so that my friends might recoil at the sight of it being in this list, crippled by flashbacks to impassioned (socially distanced) conversations.

Vincent explores masculinity like no female writer I have come across. Her commitment to her project is one of the more staggering aspects. For the course of 18 months, she almost constantly lives as a man, assimilating into different communities, earning the trust of their participants, and gaining  unique insights. Parts almost read as something akin to a spy novel. I’m sure MI5 (if not Team America) would’ve been proud.

Dune, Frank Herbert

After having it constantly appear in recommendations by podcasters and their guests alike, I eventually grabbed myself a copy of the seminal sci fi classic on a trip to Germany.

It didn’t disappoint, weaving rich world building and a moving story with leadership and communication lessons aplenty, it provides a multitude of parallels to our modern geopolitical manoeuvres, and climate anxiety.

Intimations, Zadie Smith

Six short essays see Smith reflect upon the Pandemic and her move away from New York and back to her native London. As a Londoner preparing for my own move during these times, I related to her mixed feelings of numbness and shock at how life was changing before her. Most of all, I enjoyed the people she presented as she observed them, complex and real.

Zorba The Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandfather!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned around and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?”

So encapsulates the philosophical framework which Kazantzakis approaches his two main characters. The titular Zorba arrives into the narrator’s life with a slap and a bang, and doesn’t let up. He’s a whirlwind of a man, and seems to take great delight in the act of living, in all its magical forms. The narrator is more reticent but a willing disciple, and so we the reader emerge after two hundred something pages having been swept around Zorba’s scheming mind like a Trireme in the Aegean sea.

In Order To Love, A North Korean Girl’s Story of Survival, Yeonmi Park

Reading this in the days during my move to Berlin, quarantining in a new city, alone and a little anxious, I found myself floored by Park’s experiences. The struggle of the North Korean people to survive day to day, coupled with her own endeavour to leave and navigate her adolescence while enduring the most difficult of circumstances, was a dose of humble pie. An appreciation for what we have is hard to come by in a society that cushions us from discomfort, but by reading a book like this, you can’t help but admire the incredible strength of so many people who must live hand-to-mouth, and yet still find love and hope, around the world.

Why The Germans Do It Better, by John Kampfner

A book I snapped up a week before moving there, Kampfner gives an in-depth historical overview of the quieter side of Germany, the stuff that never made it into the headlines as much as more widely known historical events. Here we learn how the country has become the EU’s most powerful country, all the while engaging with its own history in a way very few sovereign nations with checkered pasts are doing today. Much to admire, while gaining an understanding of why there remains animosity around Europe for the Germany and their stalwart leader that has taken such command.

When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön

Appropriate that I finish this list on Things Fall Apart during a year which… Well you get the point.

I read Pema Chödrön’s book with interest, after hearing it on a wonderful On Being special episode with Devendra Banhart, and then with greater intensity during the colder months of the year, when entering a difficult period. It has been a salve and a provider of constant uplift and inspiration.

Consider this quote:

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

As we move forward into yet more turbulent times, Pema has our backs.

More Work
February 19, 2024

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