I’ve read a lot of books this year, more than usual. I attribute this to, of all people, Donald Trump, who seems not to have cracked a book since college. Starting back in December, when the shock of the “election” was still fresh, I quit all social media (I’ve since relapsed on Twitter), removed the Safari app from my phone, canceled my newspaper subscription, and stopped watching all forms of televised news. It was a total media fast, and it lasted about two months, all the way into February, at which point I slowly began to fall off the wagon and return to my old ways.
In the absence of the regular torrent of information, I instead read books as voraciously as I ever have. Going back to December, I’ve probably read about forty or so. Most have been hard copies, a few were ebooks, and lately I’ve been listening to audiobooks. (Do audiobooks count?)
I don’t know about you, but processing the Trump lunacy is, for me, a pretty stressful hobby. It can be all-consuming. It’s hard not to see my book intake as a matter of self-defense. Better to ingest meaningful things, I tell myself, than to constantly obsess about, say, nuclear saber-rattling and Russian pee videos.
In the end it’s about balance.
And in light of all this reading, it makes sense that I would share some thoughts here on TNB. These aren’t really “book reviews,” per se—or maybe they are. I don’t know what to call them. I don’t consider myself a book critic. So I suppose we can call these my reactions. Thoughts on books I’ve read. Something like that. (But wait—isn’t this what book reviews are?) A kind of diary of my year in reading. An alternate history of Year One of the Trump disaster. I’ll do this in installments, as a kind of running column, rather than bombard you with everything all at once. I’ll try to do one a week, or one every couple of weeks.
Here are a few of the books I’ve read so far this year:
I’m trying to remember when I started this one. It’s possible that it was back in December. I have it listed in my notes under “2017.” It definitely influenced my decision, however short-lived, to quit all social media and read books and stop dicking around on the Internet. Newport argues that the ability to live and work deeply, to really concentrate, is an increasingly rare and valuable skill. There’s a real austerity to his approach. Keeping careful track of one’s behavior, being ruthless about avoiding trivialities and distractions and pointless conversations and so on. No social media. No surfing the web for entertainment. A meticulous daily calendar, every second accounted for. I found myself persuaded most of the time. Other times, I wondered if only maniacal Type-A hyper-achievers could sustain this kind of regimen—the kind of guy who’s deep into Paleo, runs mini-marathons on a monthly basis for fun, takes ice baths to improve metabolic function, et al. The kind of guy who is forever trying to improve his level of human performance in an effort to…decimate the competition? Maximize his output in the service of capital acquisition? Fill his bottomless god hole? I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to be learned from this book; it’s definitely good food for thought. But if I’m being honest, I’d have to say that it didn’t totally convince me. And at times it depressed the hell out of me. I would find myself thinking Is this what it takes? Is this how you have to be? (Don’t answer that.)
I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh, usually in the morning. He’s a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and an excellent writer on spiritual matters. Very clear. Very simple. It often feels like his books are derived from his lectures, transcribed and then refined for publication. They carry the vitality of the spoken word. Or maybe it’s the other way around: maybe he writes his lectures, and then delivers them, and what we read is his original “script.” Over the years, I’ve probably read twenty or thirty of his books. I’ve also listened to, conservatively speaking, 2,000 hours (?) of his lectures, which are available online, for free. I find that doing so helps me to “set myself” for the day, or reset myself, depending on the situation. I find it relaxing. He sounds sort of like a Muppet with a Vietnamese accent. His books serve as an anecdote to books about achievement, which tend to leave me muddled and anxious. They really cut through. I’m one of those people who wants there to be an instruction book for life, in much the same way there are instruction books for the assembly of a piece of furniture, or some household appliance. As much as anything I’ve ever read, Thich Nhat Hanh’s books perform that function for me.
I got this one for Christmas. It’s a coffee table book, a huge compendium of New York Times obituaries of notable people—politicians, scientists, artists, philosophers, et al. In the early days of my media fast, I would read this book in lieu of reading the morning paper. The joke became apparent very quickly: it was far less depressing to read obituaries every morning than it was to read the news. And aside from that, I’ve always loved obituaries; it’s always been my favorite section of the paper. Often they can be revelatory, inspiring. And even if they’re only ordinary, they serve as a useful reminder that time is fleeting, and here we are on this slowly dying planet, adrift in the terrifying vacuum of infinite space. Might as well make the most of it.
I really enjoyed this book. Found it very impressive. In a nutshell, it’s a complete history of Homo Sapiens, the story of how human beings happened. Normally books like this are academic in their effect: dry, plodding, witless, unreadable. Sapiens is the exception. It goes down easy and has real narrative power. I found it gripping and hugely informative. It was nice to read a book that takes such a pronounced macro-level view of humanity. It felt like being air-lifted off of the planet, taken up into orbit by a very good teacher. At a time when the minutiae of existence can be so demoralizing, this is a book that offers some much-needed perspective. The history of our species isn’t always pretty, but I find it comforting to think of us in a broad historical context, and to be reminded, again, of just how small we are, how clever and troubled and predatory and confused. “Like a virus with shoes,” as the late-great Bill Hicks used to say.
I’ve been reading about the Grateful Dead a lot this year. I’m a fan of the music, but maybe even more so I’m a fan of the cultural history that produced it. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life reading about the 1960s and psychedelic counterculture—a period that is often dismissed, much like the Dead, as simple-minded, naive, annoying (pick your adjective). For me, the deeper truth tends to be far more complicated and interesting. The Sixties were a terrific mess. The impact continues to be huge. The planet adjusting to a nuclear reality. Great civil unrest. Social change. An explosion of youth culture. The assimilation of Eastern mysticism into Western culture. The shaking off of social norms. And, not coincidentally, for the first time ever, widespread use of psychedelics, which until the latter part of the decade were entirely legal. The Dead are a kind of avatar for all of that, embodying the range of experiences. I think, too, of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who prefigured much of what happened, a kind of prototype. I imagine being on that bus. My god, I think, how filthy and exhausting and miserable. But at age nineteen? Sure. I probably would’ve gone. Almost certainly I would have. And maybe I should go right now. The real point, I guess, is that I can’t help but cheer for the spirit at the heart of the thing. I look at what’s happening in this world: the greed, the lying, the hatred, the violence. How can one argue that a bug-eyed road trip across America in a day-glo school bus is not a proportionate response? I mean, who’s more insane: the guy at the acid test or the guy at the nuclear test? Randle McMurphy, RIP.