22 Dec Books for this year’s holiday season
I recommend the books in this year’s reading list if you thought you had to do everything worth doing by age 30, if you feel like you are are veering scarily away from a tried and true career path, or if social media leaves you torn between disdain at its superficiality and a burning feeling you haven’t done enough with your life.
These books are contemplative reads. They aren’t the kind you flick through to know what happens in the end. These are stories that make you want to linger, to take in the wisdom folded between the words. The writers are people who have left a legacy, or those who hint at how you might go about that terrifying task.
Rather than leading to a resolution, their work invites you to ponder, “And now?”
For lighter reading, that will also help you use the holiday space to bring out a bit more ‘you’, start with last year’s list of books for a reflective holiday season.
The perfect job, baby and relationship will not make you happy
When making big career decisions, or debating the best colour to paint the kitchen, it’s worth remembering that whether you choose pink, fuschia or cranberry, it’s unlikely to make much difference to how you feel about the world.
In fact, all the stuff you think will make you happy, won’t. For those days you doubt that, Sonya Lyubomirsky has the science to prove it in The Myths of Happiness.
Lyubomirsky also explains why the life events you think would be devastating – like losing a loved one, disability or redundancy – won’t make you as unhappy as you think.
Whether you win lotto or lose your legs, you’ll be back at your happiness set point within a year. If that promotion, wedding and Guiness Record won’t make you happy, it frees up a bit of space to think about what else you might do with the vast but temporary timeframe of life.
Greatness is about a (whole) life lived well
Oliver Sacks is a famous neurologist whose stories about patients with curious neurological conditions (such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, literally) made medical science enjoyable reading for the average person. (Sacks himself had prosopagnosia, which means he couldn’t recognise faces and had to find ingenious ways to remember folks he had known for years.)
He faced contention from the medical field: that he was too populist, that featuring his patients was tantamount to exploitation. But there is no doubt the man left an incredible legacy, underpinned by a full, rich life.
For anyone tempted to buy a motorbike and find something cool to write about, On the Move: A Life (The autobiography of Oliver Sacks) shows our author didn’t set out to write inspirational books for millions of readers. His legacy is the result of deep curiosity about how the mind works and how we humans adapt when it goes awry, coupled with a willingness to share his discoveries to benefit others.
The internet is changing your brain
Lifetime contribution in the style of an Oliver Sacks requires a certain tenacity. This may be more difficult for generations used to moving swiftly from one thing to another, as the world wide web is training us to do.
If you were around to tap away at MS Dos in the 80s What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr will remind you how that felt, and give you a surprisingly visceral experience of how your brain has been changing ever since. A fabulous read on what the the internet is doing to the way we think, process information and learn.
Carr references Dutch psychologist Dijksterhuis when he writes: “Our unconscious thought processes don’t engage with a problem until we have clearly and consciously defined the problem. If we don’t have a particular intellectual goal in mind, unconscious thought does not occur.”
The internet doesn’t just take away your capacity to think deeply, it takes away your motivation to find a reason to do so. You may already know that.
If that makes you want to develop your concentration (and you can) history has some ideas
Yoga classes mostly expose you to just one part of yoga: the postures. Yoga postures, called asana, are important but best done as part of all eight limbs of yoga, in a progression that leads to that enlightenment thing you’ve been promised. Intense focus and clarity is part and parcel.
Yoga Meditation by Gregor Maehle is just one in a well-researched series by Maehle who compiles as much of his four decades of yoga study that an ordinary human mind could hope to comprehend into a practical set of manuals for the modern yogis. He quotes enough ancient philosophy to trust his rigour, but the precision and depth may simply strengthen your resolve to study Sanskrit. (You can also buy the book direct from 8 Limbs yoga studio in Perth, Western Australia.)
To pursue anything useful your body must be along for the ride
If it weren’t for the Feldenkrais method I wouldn’t be practicing yoga today. Persistent pain in my teens and 20s meant limited body awareness and fatigue made even beginner yoga classes frustrating. Feldenkrais taught me to start small and pay attention.
The Yoga for Pain method draws on Feldenkrais principles to help people with persistent pain do their yoga postures more ease-fully. As the ancient Yoga Sutras say: sthira sukham asanam -a yoga asana is a steady, comfortable seat – which is impossible if your body is contracted to protect it from pain, or you have an altered body map.
The Potent Self by Moshe Feldenkrais is particularly heavy reading, so here is one of my favourite quotes:
‘If the child can do what is demanded of him with no apparent forcing of himself, they will put him in a more advanced class or add something to his duty just to make sure that the poor thing learns “what life really means”…