My year in books: Nick Hornby

My year in books: Nick Hornby
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Like most people, I’m good at coming up with an idea, good at starting a project, good at setting a plan into motion, but not always great at seeing it through.

About two weeks ago I started a blog series with the intent of highlighting some of the insightfully inspiring books I’ve read this year, and the blog posts that they helped me spark to life. I only made it through two installments of this series before getting distracted by other blog ideas.

I always succumb to a small burst of serotonin laced excitement when I finish a book, because I get to start a new one. Even within the rush of dopamine that comes after I crack open the cover of a new book, there is the sensational thought of what book I’ll start after this fresh one. At the beginning of a book I am already pondering the next one. I am much like Pamela Paul in that “I am always…pining for the next book”, always lusting after “the forward movement,” lost in ecstasy and “the anticipation of what book comes next”. Not long after my Matt Haig book reading bender, I was looking through my bookshelves trying to decide what to start. Itching with the need to chase the dragon, I noticed I had a books by Nick Hornby that I hadn’t read yet. I burned through one, and before I knew I had gone through another two.

I started with A Long Way Down, and quickly followed it up with About a Boy and Funny Girl. I won’t lie, Hornby’s books didn’t hit in quite the same way Haig’s, but they were refreshing and delightful.  They are fun to read. They filled with interesting and quirky characters that are flawed and fucked-up in the most glorious and hopeful of ways, and they find their way to meaning and belonging not in spite of their many faults and foibles but because of them, because of their ability to own them, to embrace them, and to recognize them in someone else too.

If you’d like to read the blogs I wrote that make reference to Hornby’s books, you can find them below:

Short thoughts on ‘A Long way Down’…

…everything after August…

What kind of cyborgs we want to be

what kind of cyborgs we want to be
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My year in books…

Yesterday, I started a new blog series that I’m hoping to carry through to the end of year. My blogs are built of books, much in the same way, and in the same proportion, as syrup is made of sap. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and it takes me almost as much reading to write a blog. The goal of this series then, is to reverse-engineer my writings, to offer an exploded view of the articles and essays I’ve written throughout the year by drawing attention to the books that inspired them.

I had to learn to stop…

This year saw a tremendous winnowing of my creative projects and my social media presence. I stopped making videos and podcasts, I deleted all social media off my phone, and permanently closed my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I’m still active on Twitter, though the app remains absent from my phone and I only check in once or twice a day. I had gotten so caught up in the mindless angst of constant content production for content’s sake alone, without realizing that all my efforts were fueling activities antithetical to what I actually value. I had to stop. I had to learn to stop. I’m still learning. Still sifting through the wreckage of what’s left to find what’s worth keeping. Still living with the withdrawals of it all.

Do Nothing

For me, a good day, a good life, is one spent in thought, in reading, writing, and contemplating. In the midst of this depression fueled burnout I turned to books. And, one of the first I read to help me better understand a way to move forward, was Celeste Headlee‘s book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.

I tend to shy away from anything with even a seeming tinge of self-help or personal development, although I’ve still managed to read my fair share. Most are trite expressions authored by a reincarnated Pollyanna offering vapid promises that are usually either banal, unrealistic, or down right problematic. But, I’m glad I took the chance on Headlee’s book. It’s insightful, well researched, well written, and actually helpful. In many ways, the book acted as an intervention confronting me with my own addictive relationships to busyness and restless motion.

While all this was happening, I was asked to write an article about the intersection of spirituality and technology. Headlee’s work was heavy on mind, and ending up playing a pivotal part in my approach to writing the article below:

Spirituality & Technology

“Please do not forget…that you are a person and not just a tool”

Hank Green, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

From the very moment humankind invented and began to use tools we became cybernetic organisms. After all, at its most basic, any organism whose abilities are enhanced by integrating some form of technological component can be called cybernetic. Every time one of us swings a hammer, drives a car, sees through corrective lenses, rides a bicycle, looks through a microscope, or updates their status on a smart phone, we are imbedding ourselves further into our own cybernetic standing. Radio journalist Celeste Headlee explains, that when we utilize one of these implementations “our brains treat them as extensions of our bodies”. We simultaneously become both human and machine. We blur the lines between the two. We become cyborgs.

While the usage of technological mechanisms and machinations is not a strictly modern phenomenon, the obsession with them is. For most of human history prior to the Industrial revolution our species understood the importance of idleness, leisure, inactivity, and rest. In other words, at one time our ancestors were more apt to understand when, where, and how to disconnect from their technology, to put away their tools, and to simply be; to simply be human.

No part of our evolution has prepared us to live with a tool that has an always-on connection, especially one that we can be so seamlessly un-severed from. In our pocket, and ever at the ready, is perhaps the most magnificent and the most malicious of all our cybernetic enhancements; the smartphone.  It is a window to the entire world insistently at our disposal. And, it is a labyrinthian prison that is almost impossible to escape from. It is glorious and beautiful, dark and terrible, and it’s integration is almost effortless. 

For years I have over-utilized the instant access of unending availability.  I labored with tenacious intensity. Bent on trying to matter, trying to use my cyborg identity to make a difference. But, as Nietzsche warns “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” I looked long and hard into the abysmal void, and its stare bore a hole in the center of my being. The more I sought connection through the content I made to feed the wendigo of the infinite scroll, the more discontent I became. Caught up in the insatiable cycle of creating, consuming, creating for consumption, consuming for creating, I failed to recognize that I was becoming ever increasingly disconnected from what matters most; my mind, my heart, my well-being, my sanity, my humanity, myself.   

This is not intended to read as an admonition of the internet, or a protestation against technological progress. I am no luddite, nor do I have any aspirations to be. It’s unrealistic to think that we can remove ourselves from all the machines, that we can switch off every cybernetic appendage we have ever attached ourselves to. They serve a purpose. They have a use.  We are tool-beings by nature, and their utilization is built into the DNA of who we are. We can be nothing else. The question, then, is not whether or not to use technology. The question is what technologies to use, and how?

Reading, writing, art, meditation, are all tools available to us. A spiritual practice is a kind of biotechnology. They are a conglomerate of raw materials that engage and infuse themselves with our living systems for the purposes of creating improved changes. Books inject themselves into us and they “leave parts of themselves behind in [our] thoughts”, as if it were “a memory that [we] were lucky enough to gain without experience”,  journalist Annalee Newitz suggests. Writing interacts with us on cellular, molecular, and perhaps even on an atomic level. Meditation increases the performance of our neurochemistry and it’s responses to stimuli. Art is an implant that enhances attention, awareness, wisdom, and love. They each operate like a prosthesis. They are restorative, rehabilitating, and augmentary. Once grafted into our essence, we become hybrid beings; altered in ways that improve who we are. We become better, stronger, faster. 

Writer and cultural critic Maria Popova says that “one’s work should be a salute to life.” So it is when its comes to our tools. They are modifications ultimately meant to make life appear more in focus. They should give more than they ever take, add more than they ever subtract.     

There is no sense in being nostalgic for a simpler time. Evolution is unidirectional. There’s no going back, no turning around. The only path is forward. The only way is through. But, there are also no easy answers. No ready-made remedies. No solutions that are one-size-fits-all. We have to adapt and change. We have to be different. We have to do the work of discovering what is possible. We have to experiment, and iterate, and try, a lot. We have to be willing to get things really wrong, and we have to keep going. That’s the most pivotal piece actually; the persistence, the resilience. Maybe we don’t get a say in whether or not we are cyborgs, but we can still decide what kind of cyborgs we want to be. We can choose to be more human than we were before, perhaps more than we have ever been. 

My year in books: Matt Haig

pile of books
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I measure my year in books. Every year I give myself an unspoken reading goal. Unspoken, because it’s a personal challenge that I present to myself inwardly, and because if I don’t announce the goal it’s less embarrassing when I fail to meet it. Some might say that’s petty. To those who might be inclined to think so I would say “yes, and?”

However, whether I achieve the goal or not, one thing remains unavoidably true: what I read directly and unobtrusively inspires what I write. So I thought it might be fun to point out the various books that brought about particular blog posts this year.

Last year, I read Matt Haig‘s novel, The Midnight Library, and it was love at first line. In Haig, I found a voice keenly attuned to the pitch and timbre of all the hopeful frailties singing beneath the rubble of my anxiousness and longing.

This year, I made it a point read more of his writing. In fact, the first book I read this year was another of his works of fiction, How to Stop Time, which sated an ache I hadn’t realized was still hurting. I quickly followed it up with several of his nonfiction books, The Comfort Book, Reasons to Stay Alive, and Notes on a Nervous Planet. As someone who daily struggles with the capricious ebb and flow of depression, I found that each of these books functioned as a source of shelter and truth. There was deep compassion within their pages. An awareness that could only come from one who clearly understands the incurableness of chronic melancholia, but who also knows that finding light between the parting clouds is always possible.

Needless to say, Haig’s writing made a number of appearances in my own work this year:

Human progress?

It’s hard to trust the truth…

the impossibility of regret…

where living flowers…

never just one thing…

a theory of moving slowly…

wonder and amazement…

the difference between stones and kisses…

Memory and Imagination

a continent coming home…

The immutability of books…

A shoulder set to rock…

Seeing how many of my blog posts pull from Haig is a little surprising, even for me. But, I hope its a testament to how movingly poignant his writing is. For me, Haig is an author that has become an Anam Cara; not only a Soul friend, but also a Soul Doctor. I’m looking forward to reading even more of his work, and I hope you will too.