Most historians agree that America became the wold’s superpower in the early 1900s, either after the building the Panama Canal or certainly for their help in winning World War I.
Author Bill Bryson, however, convincingly argues that the county truly congealed that status in the summer of 1927, when Charles Lindberg became a global superstar after becoming the first person to fly across the Atlantic; “talking pictures” began exporting American thoughts, attitudes, and culture en masse; installment plans made modern consumerism possible; television was invented, and Babe Ruth became the first athletic superstar. Amazingly, a lot more happened that summer, too, which you’ll need to read to find out for yourself.
With one or two exceptions later in the book—where Bryson sorta goes off on a tangent about seemingly unconnected things that happened that summer (such as what book publishers did that summer)—I found the history to be fascinating and often gripping. Either way, “It was one hell of a summer,” Bryson writes.
Here’s my favorite passage: “It is a little hard to imagine now, but Americans in the 1920s had grown up in a world in which most of the most important things happened in Europe. Now suddenly America was dominant in nearly every field—in popular culture, finance and banking, military might, invention and technology. The center of gravity for the planet was moving to the other side of the world, and Charles Lindbergh’s flight somehow became the culminating expression of that.”
People want their lives to have meaning. They don’t want a third of it (i.e., the ideal time spent working) to be spent in vain. So we delude ourselves into thinking that our work has some cosmic purpose to justify working more hours, which, on the surface, would suggest more importance. But quantity is not the same as quality. If I’m really being honest, my epitaph should read: “Occupation: Helped companies sell more widgets and advertising with written words.” None of us are that big of a deal. Yes, industry and economy are an important endeavor. But it’s not as important as sharing a smile with someone, realizing your child will be smarter than you, feeling insignificant amid a majestic landscape, experiencing and nurturing true love, finding your groove, watching an underdog upset the establishment, catching a wave, or eating a homemade chocolate chip cookie. The sooner we accept our dispensability and nothingness, the sooner we’ll rightfully fill our lives with greater, more qualitative meaning.
“William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie have sold in the billions. Danielle Steel and J.K. Rowling have both moved somewhere on the order of 500 million. Stan and Jan Berenstain sold about 250 million copies of their picture books about a family of eponymous, anthropomorphized bears. Stephen King beats out Brown, checking in around 350 million, and a handful of Japanese manga writers are up there as well. But at around 50th on the list, you’ll find him: Dan Brown, American author of just seven novels (Digital Fortress is the only pre-Langdon title), with 200 million sold copies to his name.”
I devoured Brown’s first four page-turners (Digital Fortress, Deception Point, Angels & Demons, Da Vinci Code) at the turn of the century and have fond memories of doing so. He’s more than deserving of his popularity.
Remarkable author Dashiell Hammett keeps this classic murder mystery going by only describing what characters see and do—never their thoughts or feelings. This makes for a tense and innovative approach to a who-done-it, and even started the hard-boiled, film noir trend of later detective novels and movies. Four out of five stars.
Lord of the Flies by EL Epstein was one of my favorite books I read in my adolescence. It’s shocking, sad, and discouraging.
It’s also entirely made up and based on the fear-mongering belief that humans will basically eat each other when the going gets rough. Many humans often think like that in times of uncertainty—global quarantines very much included.
But “it’s time we told a different kind of story,” argues Rutger Bregman, who researched the reality of shipwrecked isolation and found that the vast majority of evidence suggests that adolescent boys would act very differently. In fact, they would largely cooperate and thrive instead of succumbing to war, murder, and anarchy.
“Readers were still skeptical,” Bregman reported, however. So he searched high and low for a real-life example of what shipwrecked boys might actually do. After sleuthing on the internet, he discovered a story of six boys from Tonga in 1965 who were shipwrecked on a Polynesian island for 15 months. He went and visited one of the survivors and heard a detailed and inspiring true story. The short of it: when the boys were finally rescued by a passing ship on September 11, 1966, a physician was “astonished by their mulled physiques” and overall health.
“The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty,” Bregman concludes. “One that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.”
Need more proof? Look how far humanity has come over the last 2000, 200, 100, or even 10 years! If the haters, pessimists, and naysayers were actually right, we would have all died along time ago. 💪
A few years ago, I was passing through Marrakech on my way to the Sahara for a magazine assignment. One afternoon, outside La Mamounia Hotel, I was accosted, as all tourists inevitably are, by a “guide.” He was an intense young Berber with penetrating eyes and a brisk stride, one of those canny creatures of the bazaar. He wore a slick black suit.
“Hello, American?” he said, instantly sizing me up.
”No, no American,” I replied and walked on as fast as I could. Not that I’m embarrassed by my nationality, but I’d been told the guides assume all Americans are loaded. Besides, I didn’t want a guide that day, and this guy really seemed like an operator.
He looked puzzled. “American, yes? You need guide for the souk. We buy rugs now.”
I shook my head vigorously and picked up my step, but he persisted. “British. German, yes? Canadian?” I could almost hear his brain racing.
“I am Finnish,” I said. Someone had told me this always throws the guides. Continue reading…
As Pogue seemingly sees it, this new economy of article-to-film adaptations turns previously idyllic literature into modern day “trash,” which is as harsh as it is inaccurate. For example, Say Nothing, a book written by the New Yorker’s Patrick Keefe and based on his previously published articles, is hardly trash for soon becoming a TV series. In fact, the book is phenomenal and proof that great authors and their stories deserve to be told across as many mediums and adaptations as possible, in an effort to reach as many people as possible—even ones that don’t like to read books or long-form articles.
Over the holidays I read The Body: An Occupant’s Guide by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors. It is well-researched, captivating, and enlightening. It loses steam in the third and final act, however, which is why I dock it a single star, while still recommending it. These are my favorite passages:
It’s a slightly humbling thought that the genes you carry are immensely ancient and possibly—so far anyway—eternal. You will die and fade away, but your genes will go on and on so long as you and your descendants continue to produce offspring. And it is surely astounding to reflect that not once in the three billion years since life began has your personal line of descent been broken. For you to be here now, every one of your ancestors had to successfully pass on its genetic material to a new generation before being snuffed out or otherwise sidetracked from the procreative process. That’s quite a chain of success.
The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hours a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder.
With such an unrelenting work rate, it is a miracle that most hearts last as long as they do. Every hour your heart dispenses around 70 gallons of blood. That’s 1,680 gallons in a day—more gallons pushed through you in a day than you are likely to put in your car in a year.
Even with the advantage of clothing, shelter, and boundless ingenuity, humans can manage to live on only about 12 percent of Earth’s land area and just 4 percent of the total surface area if you include the seas. It is a sobering thought that 96 percent of our planet is off-limits to us.
When a teenager struggles to get up in the morning, that isn’t laziness; it’s biology. Matters are compounded in America by what The New York Times in an editorial called “a dangerous tradition: starting high school abnormally early.” According to the Times, 86 percent of U.S. high schools start their day before 8:30 a.m., and 10 percent start before 7:30. Later start times have been shown to produce better attendance, better test results, fewer car accidents, and even less depression and self-harm.
Medical science has never produced a more noble and selfless group of investigators than the pathologists and parasitologists who risked and all too often lost their lives in trying to conquer the most pernicious of the world’s diseases in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There ought to be a monument to them somewhere.
As Daniel Lieberman told me, reaching 80 is largely a consequence of following a healthy lifestyle, but after that it is almost entirely a matter of genes. Or as Bernard Starr, a professor emeritus at City University of New York, put it, “The best way to assure longevity is to pick your parents.”
It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.
Written in 1962 while Toole was stationed in Puerto Rico on military duty, the novel has been described as “Don Quixote meets the French Quarter,” which is a total abortion. In truth, protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is much more likable, hilarious, and compelling than the former. His misadventures through New Orleans with an ensemble cast of nearly a dozen charismatic characters are a joy to read, as is Toole’s exceptional writing, satisfying storytelling, and clever dialogue.
In short, I could not put Dunces down and cannot recommend it enough. Sadly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work wasn’t published until 1980, this after the author was rejected by multiple editors who called his writing “pointless,” which partially caused him to succumb to depression and later suicide in 1969.
Thankfully Toole’s mother and an a university professor re-pitched the book posthumously until it was finally published. I’m so glad they did and wonder what could have been had its genius author lived to tell another tale. “Just wait till they hear all that originality pouring out of your head.”
After finishing Riders of the Purple Sage this week, I would add Zane Grey to that honorable list, especially since he was a dentist by trade, a semi-professional baseball player, and only wrote his popular adventure novels on the side!
But not only is Grey a great writer, he was also a pioneer. In fact, Riders invented the Western genre of storytelling when it was first published in 1912. Gun fights, southwestern backdrops, life and death on the American frontier.
But don’t let that genre or any misconceptions of it deter you. Riders is really two love stories in one, starring both a heroine and two heroes. It’s fantastically descriptive and emotionally engaged. I only dock it one star because there were a few times where Grey’s prose goes confusingly off trail, which forced me to re-read and decipher some paragraphs for clarity.
Not only does the book demystify the Wild Wild West, of which only half of what you heard it true (although the other half is still amazingly true!), the book clarifies the always complicated Indian-American relations as the nation expanded west to California. That understand is powerful enough.
On top of that, however, Blood and Thunder is an epic telling of the heroic Kit Carson, who scouted the west for early pioneers and settlers to eventually follow. For its well researched, balanced, and shocking reporting, I award it five stars out of five.
These were some of my favorite passages:
From an early age, Carson learned an important practical truth of frontier life—that there was no such thing as “Indians,” that tribes could be substantially and sometimes violently different from one another, and that each group must be dealt with separately, on its own terms.
The trappers murdered Indians in countless kill-or-be-killed scenarios, and some made a practice of hammering brass tacks into the stocks of their rifles for every native dispatched. But their greater slaughter was unwitting: As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel. And on their liquored breath they whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way. Continue reading…
I’m flattered by the Midwest Book Review’s endorsement of my book and “Reviewer’s Choice” award to the syndicate libraries and media outlets it contributes to.
The concept of “offline balance movement” is genuine and Blake Snow’s Log Off is this plug-in generation’s playbook for true social networking emancipation. Exceptionally well written, organized, and presented, Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting is a well timed ‘how to’ manual for social media emancipation and control that should be a part of every community, college, and university library collection. It should be noted for the personal reading lists of students, academia, and non-specialist general readers that Log Off is available in paperback, digital book, and audiobook formats.
I was recently asked which three books changed my life. This is what I said:
A Short History of Nearly Everything. How did we get to where we are today? Bill Bryson spent three years asking dozens of experts that very question to produce this awe-filled masterpiece of everything we know and don’t know about the world. Unlike other “science” books, Bryson turns astronomical numbers into metaphors you can not only understand, but gain inspiration from.
Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting. I’m biased because I wrote it, but the explanations, principles, and lessons contained therein changed my life and can for anyone else who struggles with digital obsessions. At just over a 100 pages, the helpful advice can be read over a weekend, if not a few hours.
Honorable mentions: Thinking Fast and Slow—a tad dense a times, but also the most empowering research on how to use your brain more wisely. The Book of Mormon—also dense at times, but waaaaay better than the Bible if you want to understand the doctrine of Christ, which also changed my life.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is a wonderful story about overcoming neglect, economic depression, immense pain, and even global fascism in the 1930s. With exception to the Nazis, the characters are likable. The prose is poetic. And the well-documented feat is awe-inspiring. Five stars out of five.
These are my favorite passages:
The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.
Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes… The common denominator (of rowing)—whether in the lungs, the muscles, or the bones—is overwhelming pain.
For eight hours a day, he shoveled steaming asphalt out of trucks and raked it out flat in advance of the steamrollers, the unrelenting heat rising from the black asphalt melding with the heat from the sun overhead, as if the two sources were competing to see which would kill him first. Continue reading…
Although I’m a devoted World Cup fan, you don’t have to be a soccer fan to enjoy it. The hard-to-believe true story, mob-like drama, and lavish chicanery are more than enough to keep the average reader interested.
Written by Ken Bensinger, a wonderful wordsmith and storyteller, the book is the most well-researched non-fiction I’ve encountered since Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit or Unbroken.
For its ability to show how bribery hurts everyone except the few involved, I highly recommend it.
Hi, readers—My new book, Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting, is on sale this week for just $5.99 (45% off). If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll read the Kindle, audiobook, or paperback version. If you have, I hope you’ll share a copy with your friends and/or review it on Amazon. Thanks for your support.
In terms of health, nutrition, income, vaccinations, education, sanitation, transportation, homes, lifestyles, modern conveniences, violence (i.e. death from wars or terrorism), abuse, and many other parameters, the world is a much better, happier, healthier, and peaceful place than ever before, according to consensus data.
Why does the news and human perception bemoan our impressive existence rather then celebrate it? The short answer is fear sells and human are irrational beings. But Rosling adds 10 specific myths that keep us from seeing the truth, along with ways to fix them.
“Log Off is chock full of delicious nuggets of behavioral wisdom. Concise and engaging, Snow lays bare a decade worth of personal experience, research, and experimentation. This personal journey is tied to, and sometimes driven by, recognized scientific study, and does not sugar coat any of the author’s personal struggles or failings. This honesty and frank vulnerability creates a narrative that is both relatable and inspiring, and I highly recommend this read to any connected individual seeking more meaning and focus in their life.”
Thank you, Bryce. I can tell by your writing that your read a lot, so it means a lot that you liked my book as well as you stated. High five!
Having first seen the movie, I read Nick Hornby’s About a Boy over the holidays and am glad I did. Here’s what stood out:
Writing a book with one interesting character is hard enough. Here, Hornby somehow managed to write a book with several endearing characters, all of which kept me interested until the final period.
Although I enjoyed the movie’s ending, the original book ending and additional character development is much better. I’m convinced Hornby could double as a behavioral psychologist—he understands and articulates human nature so well.
The prose. For example, “The conversation in the arcade at least had the virtue of creating a mutuality between them: they had both confessed to something they wanted, and those somethings were, when all was said and done, not entirely dissimilar, even though the someones connected with the somethings evidently were.” And, “Ellie spent her whole time wanting life to be shit, and then making life shit by making life difficult for herself.” (i.e. getting in trouble for refusing to wear her school uniform, shouting at people, fighting just to fight.)
The universal truth that all of us need back up, whether young or old, girl or boy. “Two or three isn’t enough,” says Marcus. “You need loads more backup in case someone decides to top themselves.”
The first was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, recommended by my sister Sara. Not to be mistaken for the horrific name, popular movie, and Halloween theme it inspired, the book is actually about what it’s like to be human. Masterfully written by Shelley when she was only 20 (!), Frankenstein made my heartbreak and made me ponder humanity more than another other book recently (save for this, this, and this).
Due to a few slow pages and an ending that abruptly stops (like most classical literature), I award it four stars out of five.
The second I read in less than 48 hours. It’s called The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by actor Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell. About the making of The Room (aka “The Citizen Kane of bad movies”), this book made me laugh out loud, cringe, and cheer on numerous occasions. I admire Sestero for his candor, for seeing the good in the world, for sharing his story, and for shining the spotlight on the conflicted, inspiring, and likable man named Tommy Wiseau. “What a story, Mark!”
For its hilarity and heart, I award it four stars out of five and anxiously await the movie adaptation starring James Franco.
Earlier this year, I skimmed The Minimalist Mindset by Danny Dover. In my case, Dover was preaching to the choir. But I did enjoy two important points:
Every living human being shares the same two overarching limitations, time and money. You can trade time for money (we call this a job) and you can trade money for time (we call this convenience). Harmonizing these two resources leads to maximum enjoyment of life.
When prioritizing our time and expenses, we must consider their significance as much as their importance and actual cost. In other words, ask yourself “How long will this matter?” For better fulfillment, we must prioritize our commitments and expenses from most significant to least. Similar to what Rory Vaden linearily argues in Procrastinate on Purpose, “Spend your time on things today that give you more time and a better life tomorrow.”
That said, I don’t endorse Dover’s recommendation to auto respond to all incoming emails with “I’m booked solid with previous commitments.” That’s a dick move. Just say, “No, thank you.” But I do like his recommendation to ask for a timed agenda before agreeing to a meeting and keeping meetings to a single day or slots per week (i.e. late afternoons only).
I did it again. I came oh-so-close to finishing a really long and critically-acclaimed literary classic before quitting it after three quarters completion.
I first did this 10 years ago with the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, a book by the masterful Alexander Dumas that features some of the most beautiful, if not poetic, prose I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
I did it again this spring with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—an even more powerful book—which is widely regarded as the greatest novel ever written. So why did I abandon it after 640 pages out of 864 total? Continue reading…
Phil Knight seemingly had a lot of slick editors to help him write his wonderful book (4/5 stars) on the creation and rise of Nike. But his passion, character, and insightful war stories all ring true. These were my favorite excerpts:
What if there were a way, without being an athlete, to feel what athletes feel? To play all the time, instead of working? Or else to enjoy work so much that it becomes essentially the same thing.
Every runner knows this. You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you’re running toward some goal, chasing some rush, but really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.
The Japanese believe climbing Fuji is a mystical experience, a ritual act of celebration, and I was overcome with a desire to climb it, right then. I wanted to ascend into the clouds. I decided to wait, however. I would return when I had something to celebrate.
After shaving, I put on my green Brooks Brothers suit and gave myself a pep talk. You are capable. You are confident. You can do this. You can DO this. Then I went to the wrong place.
With notable exception to most of Africa, the global economic playing field has been flattened (i.e. the world is flat)
Giving people remote access to collaborative tools, search engines, and billions of pages of information ensures that “the next innovations will come from all over Planet Flat.”
True education teaches students how to develop inquisitive minds (i.e. be curious, absorb as much as you can, seek answers to questions that inspire you)
America is losing its competitive edge of trust, stability, and entrepreneurial infrastructure (i.e. “its secret sauce”) because it’s increasingly becoming entitled, lazy, and out-collaborated by hungrier nations, Friedman argues. It also succumbed to fear-mongering after 9/11 instead of focusing on optimism and hope as it had done so well up to that point.
Globalization winners take care of their own, but they are also compassionate and considerate of others, not protectionists playing an illusionary zero-sum economic game (i.e. domestic manufacturing jobs).
Economic success is the result of hard work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity, and openness to adapt from others (i.e. “glocalization”)
Authoritarian Muslim countries (e.g. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, ISIS) have struggled to adapt to a flattening world because they don’t “glocalize.” More tolerant India, Turkey, Lebanon, Bahrain, Dubai, Indonesia, and Malaysia are notable exceptions to this rule, Friedman argues.
The roots of terrorism are based on religious fanaticism and an education system that condemns Western decadence to create an atmosphere of intolerance (rather than a “live and let live” mindset).
Although the U.S. still benefits from being the most dominate popular culture, globalization is is not the same as “Americanization” or American imperialism.
No two countries that are part of a major global supply chain, such as Dell or McDonald’s, will ever fight a war against each other so long as both remain in said supply chain (i.e. money talks more than peace talks).
Despite Friedman’s verbose and scatterbrain writing, his insights deserve four stars out of five.
I read the latter this month and was in awe of the actual book within a book. Admittedly, Goldman is a remarkably creative, funny, and powerful writer. But the literary mechanism he uses to set up, interject, and conclude the beloved ’80s story — in this case pretending to be a humbled author searching for his next great hit by abridging “the good parts version” of another fictional author’s larger work — detracts from an otherwise five-star effort.
I suspect even Goldman realized this when writing his award-wining screenplay for the actual movie 14 years after publishing the book. Instead of his original, confusing, and over-the-top author trope, Goldman instead opts for the much cleaner “grandpa reading the story to his sick grandson” setting.
Either way, Goldman is a sarcastic genius. And I’m glad he finally got it right. Four stars out of five. Would have awarded it five stars had it not been for the above oversight.
If you do read it, skip the setup, treat Goldman’s interjections as author’s notes, and head straight for the exceptional story of true love, Inigo’s heartwarming backstory that is strong enough to stand on its own, and dozens of beautiful passages like this:
The woman who emerged was a trifle thinner, a great deal wiser, an ocean sadder. This one understood the nature of pain, and beneath the glory of her features, there was character, and a sure knowledge of suffering.
The rope seemed almost alive, the greatest of all water serpents heading at last for home.
His eyes bulged wide, full of horror and pain. It was glorious. If you like that kind of thing.
I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.
Although English is the third most spoken language after Mandarin and Spanish, it is the most spoken second language in the world. This is due to the power-brokers that speak it, its uniquely expressive vocabulary, and how it came to be, argues Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue.
For being more like Bryson’s interesting read on domestic life and less like his masterpiece on science, I award it three stars out of five. These were my favorite passages:
What most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000). This richness and wealth of available synonyms means English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. Continue reading…
What might happen if humans lived an entirely simulated life, doing everything online except for eating and sleeping?
Earnest Cline has a dystopian, geeky, and fist-pumping answer in Ready Player One, his best-selling novel which I read over the holidays.
The story takes place in 2044 and follows a teenage prodigy named Wade as he seeks hidden fame, power, and fortune bequeathed by the world’s richest man. “But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue,” reads the synopsis, “he is beset by rivals that will kill for the prize, forcing him to confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.”
Clever, huh? USA Todayaccurately described it as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” I’d add a little Brave New World, ’80s game geek culture, Tron, and “The Wreck-It-Ralph of books” for good measure—all good things.
For fellow nerds who appreciate those things, I award the book a tilted four and a half out of five stars. For everyone else, particularly those who share my desire to curb compulsion disorders, I give it four stars.
I recently finished Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, which tells the unlikely true story of the titular captain saving all of his crew after his ship was crushed by Antarctic ice floes in 1914.
All told, the 28 men survived 18 months on sea, ice, and one inhospitable island, while enduring unthinkable cold, the worst weather ever, and the first terrestrial crossing of South Georgia. Even more amazingly, they largely did it with jovial spirits, which helped them persevere and ultimately conquer death.
As I said before, Lansing’s writing is so intensely riveting, I was literally gulping and gasping for air at times. If it weren’t for a somewhat halted plot in the second quarter, I would award the book five out of five stars. These are my favorite passages: Continue reading…
I recently finished The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford’s well-researched, sometimes heavy-handed, but always legendary retelling of the 1911 South Pole race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott. In addition to being published the year I was born, the book’s important for the following reasons: Continue reading…
Because he wrote this masterpiece, I consider Bill Bryson one of the greatest non-fiction writers of our time. And while his similar At Home: A Short History of Private Life is brimming with domestic insights, it’s not as powerful or focused as the former. Three stars out of five. I’d only recommend it to die-hard home owners. My favorite passages:
That’s really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things… eating, sleeping, having sex, or endeavoring to be amused.
So sedentism meant poorer diets, more illness, lots of toothache and gum disease, and earlier deaths. What is truly extraordinary is that these are all still factors in our lives today.
The dining table was a plain board called by that name. It was hung on the wall when not in use, and was perched on the diners’ knees when food was served. Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself, which is where the board comes from in room and board.
It has been estimated that 60 percent of all the crops grown in the world today originated in the Americas. These foods weren’t just incorporated into foreign cuisines. They effectively became the foreign cuisines. Imagine Italian food without tomatoes, Greek food without eggplant, Thai and Indonesian foods without peanut sauce, curries without chilies, hamburgers without French fries or ketchup, African food without cassava. There was scarcely a dinner table in the world in any land east or west that wasn’t drastically improved by American foods.
Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built.
Trying to understand people is more effective than criticism. Not only does it bring clarity, it breeds tolerance and kindness, which engenders people. So before criticizing someone’s effort or creation, ask them why they did what they did. See things from others’ viewpoints. As a born critic, this is difficult for me to do. But I’ve already seen how effective this is after using it on those closest to me.
Smile when greeting and talking to people. This is a simple and powerful act. “The expression one wears on one’s face is far more important than the clothes one wears on one’s back,” Carnegie writes, this coming from someone who notes the power of dressing nice. And from someone who says “one” quite a lot. Continue reading…
I posses five and a half of the seven denominators of American millionaires, according to The Millionaire Next Door. Assuming each of these traits are weighted equally, I have a 79% chance (78.5% to be exact) of becoming one.
While the extra play money would be fun, I’m content with my thousandaire status. I have my health. I’ve got my soulmate. I found my calling.
I have five fabulous children, many uplifting friends, and a loyal dog. When kids ask me if I’m “rich,” I say yes, because I am.
Enough of the feel-good crap. A millionaire I am not. Let’s get down to numbers: Continue reading…
For any male readers born from the mid ’70s to early ’80s, listen up—Console Wars by Blake Harris has it all: your childhood, the answer to your next marketing challenge, cultural divides, innocence, under bellies, triumph, and loss.
It’s also the only book I’ve ever read that made me feel as young as I am old. Take these gems, for example:
“There was no such thing as a magic touch, and it wouldn’t have mattered if there were, because the only thing it takes to sell toys, vitamins, magazines (or anything) is the power of story. That was the secret. That was the whole trick: to recognize that the world is nothing but chaos, and the only thing holding it (and us) together are stories… When you tell memorable, universal, intricate, and heartbreaking stories, anything is possible.”
“Tony Harman was prepared to leave with his tail between his legs (smiling, though, as his thesis that western cultures can make great games too had made it all the way to the top), but he decided to try one more approach. “Let me just ask one more question,” he said, taking a step toward [Nintendo President] Yamauchi. “How many bad television commercials do we make each year?” Continue reading…
Overall, I find the technical language of books such as Hyperion, Shockwave Rider, and others with ridiculous covers—the kind Gentlemen Broncos makes fun of—too distracting to enjoy. Reading them feels like work. It’s almost as if the author wants me to decipher or decode the language before understanding it. It’s why I abandon many of these books, including The Hobbit. After all, I read to enjoy or educate myself—not learn a fictional language.
When they’re not using overly technical and distracting language, sci-fi novels often finish in confusing or unpoetic form, as is the case with Ender’s Game, an otherwise clever book. Now, I haven’t completely given up on the genre. I still have Dune, Starship Troopers, 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, and others on my list.
My faith in the genre skyrocketed today, however, after reading the first chapter of Planet of the Apes. It’s one of the best opening chapters I’ve read of any genre. It’s so captivating, I dare any imaginative mind over the age of 10 to read the first chapter and desist. It’s humanly impossible. Try it yourself if you don’t believe me, for free even.
My wife and I watched Stardust recently. It’s been on my watch list for years, given its high viewer rating. But the crap poster always kept me from hitting “play.”
I’m glad I finally did. Stardust is a five-star film. The best fantasy movie I’ve seen since The Princess and the Bride—maybe even better. It’s certainly better than the under-edited Lord of The Rings, the most popular fantasy film of late. (Don’t worry nerds, I kept my sub-genres separated.)
In any case, I liked Stardust so much, I immediately read the book. It’s good but ends with a limp. The movie, on the other hand, ends with an enormous and climatic bang. The similarly-ended The Natural is the only other movie I can think of that is better than the book.
Humans are usually influenced in one of six ways, argues Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I suspect there are a lot more subtle and intricate ways to influence, but I think Cialdini certainly covered the highlights in his popular book published in 1984. They are as follows:
Reciprocity. Humans feel obligated to return favors and gifts, even unwelcome ones—which partially explains why their are so many free samples in life. Hence, giving away something for free is an effective way to influence. You can avoid this influence by distinguishing uninvited gifts from welcome ones. For example, “I didn’t want this free food sample to being with, so I won’t feel obligated in giving you anything in return if I take it. Another thing to beware of are unwelcome concessions; say a door-to-door salesman that asks you to donate a large sum to a cause you aren’t interested in, only to lower the donation amount in the hopes you’ll donate something. The takeaway: Don’t donate unless you want to, not because someone is seemingly compromising. Continue reading…
The answers to those questions and many more can be found in Daniel Kahneman’s eye-opening book, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a fascinating, enlightening, and scientifically accessible read.
After decades of research, Kahneman discovered that the brain makes decisions in two ways. The first is system 1 thinking—the fast, almost involuntary, and largely gut-based decision-making required to operate. It quickly processes tasks like “eat this, pick up that, move out of the way,” and even, “stay alive.” System 1 makes hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions each day and is the “hero of the book,” says Kahneman. System 1 gets things done.
System 2, on the other hand, is slow to engage, deliberate, and lazy. It deals with doubt, uncertainty, statistics, and heavy cognitive loads like writing, performing surgery, solving advanced math—anything that requires intense focus, really. System 2 is not emotional. It’s the part of your brain that questions the source, asks for hard numbers to back up claims, and is innately critical. It deems things guilty until proven innocent. Continue reading…
Build character, not intelligence. That’s the gist of what parents, educators, and society should do to help children succeed, argues Paul Tough in his new book.
Many of Tough’s “findings” are obvious, mind you. More scientific validation of common sense than childrearing enlightenment, at least for balanced parents.
Nevertheless, Tough succeeds in synthesizing some important focal points for raising upstanding kids. Here they are, with my added commentary:
Let children fail. It’s tempting to want to force a child to learn from yours and other’s mistakes. Life doesn’t work that way. You should certainly own up to your mistakes while showing them others’ and hope the child listens. But you must respect a child’s right to fail. It’s the only way they’ll feel the full experience of life. Let them own their failures as much as society lets them own (if not coddles) their victories. And let them know that failure is not who they are, it’s just something they do en route to winning. Continue reading…
I finished reading A River Runs Through It last week. The prose — written by Norman Maclean in his ’70s — is so powerful and poetic, it halted me on several occasions. The ending made me cry.
Among other things, Maclean dishes advice on faking it until you make it: “Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to be perfect,” he writes. Or as his brother Paul often said, “Gentleman, you can’t catch fish with flies in the air.”
Maclean also takes aim at modernization: “What a beautiful world it was once… You could leave beer to cool in the river, and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn’t foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula… What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis or St. Louis.” (NOTE: You can replace the word “beer” with just about anything. Nostalgic.)
I finished One Man’s Wilderness recently and enjoyed its simple prose and short stories. It’s a 200 page book about one man building a log cabin in an isolated part of Alaska and living alone for sixteen months.
It’s similar to Walden, althoughmore adventurous. It’ll compel you to visit Alaska and encourage a new appreciation for hard work and minimalism. Three stars out of four. Some of my favorite passages were:
“Chores are easier if forethought is given to them and they are looked upon as little pleasures to perform instead of inconveniences that steal time and try patience.”—p. 30
After a hard day of work chopping wood: “The grand finale! Drive the ax into the block, look around, and contemplate the measure of what you have done.”—p. 33
“There’s no sleeping pill like a good day’s work.”—p. 39
“Needs: I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people… I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, ‘Must I really have this?'”—p. 209
I read Unbroken last year and liked it so much I emailed the author after finishing it because it was so well researched, written, and told. Yesterday I finished Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand’s first book. Despite seeing and really liking the movie first, reading the story allowed me to cheer for the Biscuit as if I were there. A lot of fun. 4 stars out of 5. Not quite as accomplished as Unbroken, which I give 4.5 stars out of 5. But certainly more “exciting” non-fiction with more endearing characters. Either way, both are wonderful.
Assuming his biography well represents him, Steve Jobs was a jerk for much of his life. A work-a-holic with eating disorders, incredibly bratty, ruthless.
I’m sure a lot of devout followers will excuse his actions with “no one is perfect.” I prefer that justification, however, for people who are at least trying to improve their social skills with age, instead of sticking to their anti-social guns as Jobs did for much of his life.
To be fair, I still buy printed books. But only because I’m a cheap skate and I like being able to pass my favorite books on to friends and family—can’t do that with my Kindle.
That said, e-readers are a great way to own hundreds of classics for free, not to mention the occasional contemporary book bought on discount. Not only that, but Kindle is a wonderful way to read literature.
New prediction: E-readers, will in fact, replace the majority of books (but not all, they will stay niche like pencils).
It all started in college. I’d head to class early to get a jump on my studies, get bored within 30 minutes, then open to whatever novel, biography, or paperback I had bookmarked for personal enjoyment. In the course of my four year, 63-credit undergraduate education, I’d do this several times each semester.
Once I remember ditching an entire day of classes — Neverending Story-style — just to read Dan Brown. I had only planned to skip my first lecture.
Just today, I slotted in a few minutes of And Then There Were None underneath the backyard maple tree, after eating a delicious meatball sandwich (thanks, Lindsey). Once my mental clock chimed in telling me to get back to work, I consciously dismissed it just so I could see how soldiers five, six, and seven died.
(The book is bloody brilliant, btw. Not only that but it’s remarkably written.)
Admittedly, my boss is a softy and does a horrible job in tracking my time. But I can’t think of a better way of grabbing life by the horns than reading a book when you really should be doing something else.
That or an afternoon baseball game, whichever comes first.
As the value of higher education continues to decline, these are some great alternatives: Start a business, travel the world, create art, make people laugh, write a book, work for a charity, master a game, master a sport. Splendid!
It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading Mark Twain, starting with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I finished this week.
I figured the author was good, given all the praise that’s continuously heaped on him. But I didn’t know he’d be this good. I had no idea he was as laugh-out-loud funny as Jerry Seinfeld (even more so, maybe).
More than that, Twain has the uncanny ability to turn even the most mundane occurrences into entertaining literature (i.e. a poodle playing with a beetle). He is a master of the English language and a joy to read. As a bonus, he’s a modern day Confucius, sharing wisdom and life hacks throughout this 184 page book.
… than watching this. Usually (I make exceptions for high-profile sporting events and the occasional Netflix stream.)
Point is, DVR lowers your standards. You wouldn’t watch half that crap (and by “crap,” I mean poorly produced, written, and acted shows when compared to movies) if it were live. So why subject yourself to lesser entertainment? I’m sure some people use DVR as it was designed: to make it easier to watch the shows you used to watch live. But the majority of DVR users actually abuse the technology, and end up watching more television (i.e. settling) than they normally would.
In that sense, DVR is not better living through technology. It’s clouding our judgment. It’s reducing our ability to think critically.
I read Nineteen Eighty-Four this month for the first time. What struck me most about the book was not George Orwell’s impracticable vision of totalitarianism. (On the contrary, there are “less arduous and wasteful ways” of satisfying a government’s lust for power.) Rather, it’s how overwhelming the antagonist is. For example, consider this “you can’t stop us” speech given by Comrade O’brien, as he tortures our anti-hero Winston into submission: Continue reading…
As the father of two girls, with another on the way, I’ll take all the help I can get concerning their well-being and development. And although it could have been written using fewer words, the 197-page Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters was an enlightening wake-up call to some of the challenges my daughters will likely face. After reading it, I felt empowered and reassured of the fathering techniques I already held to be true.
Written by Meg Meeker, a child psychiatrist and mother of four, the book is peppered with personal stories and alarming statistics. The stated “10 secrets” aren’t really secrets as much as their are good advice. To summarize, they are as follows: Continue reading…
At the recommendation of a long-time Smooth Harold reader (thanks, Nic), I finished Robinson Crusoe over the weekend. Regarded as the first novel written in English and first published in 1719, it’s a story about high-sea adventure, shipwrecks, castaways, gratitude, hard work, and international intrigue.
What I like most about the book is Defoe’s poetic commentary on human behavior. For example, after Robinson nearly drowned at sea for the first time, he quickly swore off his selfish ways and committed himself to God, before changing his mind after disaster had been averted: Continue reading…
We also agree that those wordy, overblown, or otherwise melodramatic introductions by semi-popular modern authors are lame. I understand it’s a marketing ploy to sell more re-released books, and you can always skip ’em. But they get in the way of great literature. I have yet to read an author introduction that I enjoyed. Let me get to the book already, or at least call the thing an “author retrospective” and put it in the back of the book.
I was 15 the first time I read Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. I remember thinking when discovering it: “Really? A Pulitzer Prize book that’s only 127 pages? I can do that!” And I did.
I liked it. It was an easy read. I felt for the man, and it was inspiring. Last week, I finished it for the second time, some 14 years after I first read it. My feelings haven’t changed much, but I appreciate Hemingway’s metaphors more so this time than the last. Some updated thoughts:
By recommendation, I finished reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen last month. Though hardly a page-turner, I have a stronger appreciation for Africa after reading this book than by reading or seeing any other material on the subject. It’s a true story about a Danish transplant and her experience running a farm in east Africa.
It’s not the easiest read. I lost interest from time to time for a page and a half. But a compelling short-story is always within reach, making the effort worth it. For example, consider this little gem of an observation:
“Native [Africans] dislike speed, as we dislike noise, it is to them, at the best, hard to bear. They are also on friendly terms with time, and the plan of beguiling or killing it does not come in to their heads. In fact the more time you can give them, the happier they are, and if you commission a Kikuyu [Kenya’s most populous ethnic group] to hold your horse while you make a visit, you can see by his face that he hopes you will be a long, long time about it. He does not try to pass the time, but sits down and lives it.”
Lovely reading. And a great book if you want to improve your writing.
After a seven month hiatus (having only read 4-5 books last year), I caught the reading bug again. To stay the course, here are a dozen classics I’d like to read in 2009:
Anna Karenina 1984
War and Peace
The Adventures of Huck Finn
In Search of Lost Time
The Stories of Anton Chekhov
Moby Dick The Catcher in the Rye
For Whom the Bell Tolls
I’m currently reading Out of Africa and plan to re-read the following: Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, and To Kill a Mockingbird (I remember liking them in high school). Off a recommendation from a well-read friend, I’m also excited to read Water for Elephants and The Kite Runner. And for cheap thrills, I’m going to read The Firm and The Rainmaker, two Grisham novels I missed.
Anything I should add?
UPDATE: Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, Of Mice and Men, Measure for Measure, the complete Jane Austen collection, Man’s Search for Meaning.
I finished reading the popular Life of Pi last night. In sum, it’s a clever endorsement for zoos, storytelling, and the existence of God, either allegorically or literally.
Author Yann Martel’s use of metaphors is inspired and makes me feel inadequate as a writer when it comes to creatively describing objects, emotions, and experiences. For that, I was in awe — and laughing at times. Overall, I give the book four stars out of five for dragging a little in the first and second acts. Chapter 97 is my favorite.
If I were a disoriented high school or college student, and were forced to answer the following discussion guide questions for a homework assignment, these would be my answers:
Though I’m embarrassed to say it, especially given that my livelihood (read: writing) depends on it, I’ve seemingly broken up with nutritious reading this year. Without noticing, I’ve gone more than seven months without reading a single book (okay, maybe one). I’m not even sure why.
I still read junk literature on a daily basis (i.e. online articles), but those don’t count. I need more Hemmingway, Austen, and Potok in my diet. Unfortunately, I have no desire to open a book, due to a prolonged state of atrophy and laziness. I want to fall in love again and admire my wife and colleagues who remain passionate about the medium.
Have you ever broken up with books? If so, how did you rekindle the fire?
I’ve always thought these two looked eerily similar, and now I have proof. Ferriss is clearly a strawberry blonde Steve-O. And with that, I have finally become a niche celebrity blogger. It only took me three years.
Written in 2004 with the help of author Sean Mortimer, The Mutt has less to do with skateboarding and more to do with lifehacks, storytelling, business, relationships, and trying to please an impossible father. Mullen is obviously neurotic, but he comes off being genuine and likable in the book. And it’s easy to see how he became the greatest in his field, arguably more so than Tony Hawk, due to his insane work ethic. Just reading about his stingy regime makes me feel lazy, but it’s also motivating.
Don’t let the name mislead you—The AP Guide to News Writing will help you become a better writer of everything except maybe books. This quick and worthwhile read is full of helpful tips, professional counsel, and practical ways to further flex your prose.
Wow. Just wow. The 4-Hour Work Week is the most influential book I’ve read in years. Author Timothy Ferris, though a self-proclaimed extremist, dishes on slowing down your life, getting out of the rat race, outsourcing menial tasks, ditching your RSS feeds, batch processing email instead of checking it every 15 minutes (if not more), reducing unnecessary information consumption in favor of productivity and real learning, how effectiveness trumps efficiency, and how the idea of “retirement” is grossly flawed. In short as the book description tells, “Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.”
Ferriss defines the new rich as those who favor mobility, experience, and service in favor of materialism. He counsels in great detail how to setup an automated online company for newbies (easier said than done, though possible) and how to focus your daily work efforts without letting fluff work get in the way. Best of all, Ferriss delivers it all in a very grounded, balanced, and hilarious way despite what his sensational title and clever tagline suggest. Overall, the book is unthinkably smart and of value to any person over the age of 18. I resolve from here on out to work smarter while striving to do what I love further still. That and more world travel, of course. :)
On that note, I’m planning my attempt to ditch the Internet for an entire year. I don’t have all the kinks figured out, and twice weekly email use will have to stay, but I will triumph within the next five years. Just you watch.
From Lee Iacocca‘s book Where Have All the Leaders Gone?: “The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don’t need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we’re fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That’s not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I’ve had enough. How about you?”
Don’t have time to read every popular business book out there? Read the book summaries at either Wikipedia or Wiki Summaries. These “Cliff Notes” of sorts work great for buzz terms, new ideas, and heavy meme books like the following:
The list could go on and on. Just Wiki a popular book and have at it. Of course, this isn’t a substitute for that excellent thing called actual reading, but it’s a great way to stay up to date, if not refresh yourself on the key ideas of emerging (or repackaged) concepts in business.
Because it’s written for already good companies. A majority of US businesses being run by entrepreneurs have yet to prove themselves. Therefore, I would like to see From Nothing to Good. Then I’ll focus on taking my company the rest of the way.
I only got through half his book, but plan on finishing it once I’m good.