Those of you keeping score at home know I love trying to find life lessons everywhere (even in movies). Books, of course, are not an unusual source of lessons but reading critically and identifying the thoughts and lessons that truly resonate with you is an enjoyable exercise that adds value to fiction and non-fiction alike. The books that I read in 2015 represent a nice blend of both categories and though the lessons are certainly easier to glean from non-fiction, there were also lessons to be learned from the fictional stories.
Here are some of my favorites.
Harvest by Jim Crace
Harvest will really remind readers of the film The Village as the setting is almost identical. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Harvest features prose that borders on poetry in terms of both beauty and lyricism. The story is simple but rich – a group of outsiders arrives on the edges of a rural settlement on the same night a large fire consumes the manor house. Accusations are immediately leveled against the unknown visitors and the pursuit of the truth pushes each villager to the edge.
The lane is telling me I should not fear the futures that it holds.
The villagers in Harvest value their uncomplicated lives and go to extremes in their attempts to maintain it. However, as I have often said across many posts, there are no reasons to fear the unknown future. There are good reasons to fix what “ain’t broke”.
I can’t believe he would be parted from his smile, even in death.
This quote is presented out of context but who wouldn’t want to be remembered this way?
It’s certain that you cannot tell from how a person works or how a person strolls behind her hens what kind of life they live in secrecy.
Another common theme explored elsewhere on ToVa: your own concept of another person is not even a shred of the whole truth of their being. This can mean things good or evil are unseen and/or unknown by you but the real takeaway is to remember that though other people appear as extras in the movie of our daily life, their existence could be every bit as rich as yours (if not more rich).
Quiet by Susan Cain
As an introvert, I found Quiet quite fascinating. Cain digs deep into society’s concept of introversion and what she refers to as the “extrovert ideal” that leaves most introverts feeling misunderstood and/or undervalued. Introverts will find it especially interesting but extroverts will also take a lot away from the research and case studies that Cain presents.
That said, the quote that I found the most inspiring applies to introverts and extroverts alike:
Those who live the most fully realized lives – giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves – tend to find meaning in their obstacles.
We would all do well to remember this very true notion in times of struggle.
How to be Alone by Sara Maitland
Doesn’t it seem natural that I would sit down a book about introversion and pick up what is ostensibly a guide to being a loner? Of course, How to be Alone is far from a step-by-step guide to hermitude – rather, it is an exploration of the many benefits of carving out some solitude in a world that increasingly demands either our physical or digital presence at all times.
Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.
We all want to be “luxuriously immersed in doings of [our] own choice” but this often requires being alone or, at the very least, ‘disconnected’. This, then, is a valuable reminder that to be alone is more about being present with ourselves than it is about removing ourselves from the company of others.
All of us want to be treated as complex and unique human beings, but simultaneously want everybody to be just like ourselves.
I present this quote without context just because it always make me chuckle.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
This book, by the co-founder of The School of Life, uses the philosophy of a great thinker to guide the reader through dealing with existential crises (for example: the philosophy of Socrates is relayed as a consolation for being unpopular). It is a highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable way to expose oneself to the works of great philosophers such as Nietzsche and Epicurus if you’re hesitant to jump right into their respective primary texts.
It was hard to limit the number of quotes I wanted to share and even still I’m left with quite a long list.
If we attend properly to our experiences and learn to consider ourselves plausible candidates for an intellectual life, it is, implied Montaigne, open to all of us to arrive at insights no less profound than those in the great ancient books.
Montaigne was all about the ability of the common man to achieve intellectual heights and this quote underscores the point. We could all afford to take ourselves a little more (but not too) seriously.
Critics are not inclined to bow before the grander pronouncements of those with whom they attended university.
Oh, so true – but we are truly limiting ourselves through such jealousy.
The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself.
Courtesy of the stoics, this quote highlights that we must be careful about where (and with whom) we deposit pieces of ourselves. It is possible to toe the line between looking out for your own development and being selfish.
He allowed him to be himself; through his psychological acuity, he enabled him to be so. He offered scope for valuable and yet until then neglected dimensions of Montaigne’s character – which suggests that we pick our friends not only because they are kind and enjoyable company, but also, perhaps more importantly, because they understand us for who we think we are.
There are many dimensions to friendship and our most valuable relationships with others will be both affectionate and actualizing, pushing us ever toward achieving our ideal self. Friends who see us as everything we wish to be are special indeed.
Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured toward new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.
A warning against the dangers of consumerism, ostensibly, but also a reminder that we must tend to the garden of our minds. How to be Alone can help in this cause.
Errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.
This really should be common sense but sadly is not altogether common knowledge. The motivations of those who might oppose us are hard to know (see the earlier quote from Harvest about secret lives) and physical objects that get in the way could be present for no greater reason than coincidence. You might be wrong but the mere presence of resistance does not in itself prove this fact.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Most of you have probably seen the movie and I hope many have also read the book. More than just a gripping science-fiction tale of survival, The Martian is hilarious from cover to cover. Thankfully, this humor mostly survived the translation to film but if you haven’t read the book, do!
No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
Remember what we just said about obstacles not being an indicator of correctness?
Since Sol 6 all I’ve wanted to do is get the hell out of here. Now the prospect of leaving the Hab behind scares the shit out of me. I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”
He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my rover. Man those guys were cool.
Included because we all want to a whiskey drinkin’, moon landin’ Apollo astronaut. Those guys were cool.
Log Entry Sol 11
I wonder how the Cubs are doing.
Mark Watney’s log in the early days of his being stranded on Mars. A little levity never hurt nobody (but Cubs fandom has).
The Fall by Albert Camus
Camus is one of my favorite authors and thinkers. I’ve featured his ideas on ToVa before. His novels do a fantastic job of weaving his philosophy through a compelling but fictional narrative and The Fall is no exception. The book is entirely dialogue but reveals only one side of a conversation between the speaker, Clamence, and a fellow Frenchman he befriends and subsequently shows around Amsterdam. Slowly Clamence reveals elements of his personal history and philosophy toward many subjects – primarily judgement – to the increasing horror of his compatriot and the reader.
One plays at being immortal and after a few weeks one doesn’t even know whether or not one can hang on till the next day.
Anybody making a real go of things has been here before: you’re on top of the world one minute and then you blink and can’t get motivated to get out of bed. Pacing and moderation are critical in all aspects of our lives; actualization is a process, not a task.
What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others.
Hindsight, eh? Still, these lessons must be learned.
… We rarely confide in those who are better than we. Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society. Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default.
Here is a different, more cynical, take on the earlier quote about choosing friends who see us as we want to be seen. This is a trap in which we can easily be ensnared. Those with low expectations are easier to please and less likely to judge but they will also never help you move forward. They are quicksand from which it is difficult to escape. Fear not the judgement of the less-enlightened.
But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others.
I feel like I just said this!
Doubtless they suspected me of living fully, given up completely to happiness; and that cannot be forgiven. The look of success, when it is worn in a certain way, would infuriate a jackass.
Jealousy! People unwilling to pursue their own happiness will never give you credit for achieving happiness of your own. This is not worth your time to consider.
Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.
Again we strike upon a common theme across these books: that others know not what we are going through and can never be made to understand. As the stoics remind us, we must choose to live for and invest in ourselves.
You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.
Charisma and charm are facets of human interaction that fascinate me and this quote illustrates their magical powers. It’s a topic I’ll be exploring in future blog posts.
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen
Until I picked up The Twenty-Seventh City I had not read one word written by Franzen which meant, with the release of Purity toward the end of the year, I had five novels to work my way through. Since I love doing these things in order, I started with his first novel, a sprawling narrative concerning a political and sociological conspiracy in St. Louis that effects all levels of the city’s society. The treat of Franzen’s writing is in the observation and his first effort is no exception, showing flashes of the insight that he refines with each subsequent novel.
Everything seems like it might be important. The side of the bed I sleep on. Working too hard. Not working enough. Do I need to get angry? Or do I need to stay calm? Weekend versus week night. Red wine versus white. You know? Because there’s got to be a reason for this, and any part of my life, anything I do every day — There are so many variables, so many combinations. I can’t pinpoint the important ones by any process of elimination. What if the reasons I can’t sleep are eating sugar, going to bed too early, and watching sports on the weekend? I could never isolate that. But I lie there for hours turning over the variables. I can’t remember when I ever slept well. As if my whole life had been this way.
Case in point: who among us has not had thoughts in this same pattern? There is comfort in knowing we are not alone. The power of fiction is its ability to breed empathy.
Probst doesn’t have the loser’s ethic it takes to believe in conspiracy.
While the notion of a ‘loser’s ethic’ seems harsh, this touches again upon our common thread of feeling like any resistance means we are wrong or that people are out to get us. The winners, meanwhile, are getting on with it.
And he could see how the year had happened , how a man in his prime, the envy of a state, could lose everything without even putting up a fight along the way: he hadn’t believed in what he had.
Here is a very real danger we all face as we strive for actualization. It is possible to reach – sometimes several times – a point when we don’t feel as though the good around us and the things we have accomplished are real or worthwhile or (more cynically still) a product of our efforts. If we don’t value what we have it may slip away while we’re not looking.
Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
Strong Motion again weaves a tale of conspiracy but in a tighter manner than Franzen’s first novel. Reneé Seitchek is a seismologist working at Harvard when unprecedented earthquakes rock the Boston area. She meets and begins a romance with Louis Holland, whose grandmother was the sole fatal victim of the first of these minor tremors. Through this romance and her exposure to the Holland family she slowly begins to theorize that the cause of the earthquakes is not natural but her accusations – if true – would have far-reaching implications.
I have no quotes to share from this book as most of my marginalia in this case highlighted bits of prose I particularly liked for stylistic reasons (you can click here to read those passages if you’re interested) but the story itself stands as a good example of determination in the face of opposition. When Reneé completes her theory (which she defends in an academic article) there are ample stakeholders who wish to dismiss her theory for various and shallow reasons as well as those who stand to lose if she is proven right and are a threat to her safety as she proceeds with her research.
She sticks to her guns and (in several ways) looks out for her own interests despite all of the resistance and, in some cases, departures of those who encouraged her to pursue her research in the first place.
What are you reading?
My first novel of 2016 is The Corrections, Franzen’s third and most highly-regarded novel. I’m 150 pages in and can already see why this is the case.
What are you reading? Please share below along with any lessons you’d like to highlight.
All of my writing – including ToVa posts, fiction, and personal essays – is now being gathered at jgregjoachim.com