Slow Books: A Reading List for Your Summer Break

For those of you who read last year’s summer reading post this is a familiar quote, but I repeat it nonetheless because it is the reason why I read (quote from Nassim Taleb in Antifragile):

. . .  the worst thing one can do to feel one knows things a bit deeper is to try to go into them a bit deeper. The sea gets deeper as you go further into it, according to a Venetian proverb. Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it – books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.

So, what I am trying to do is dig a little deeper and sometimes also further back in time to understand how some ideas first came into being. As Charlie Munger put it:

The more basic knowledge you have . . . the less new knowledge you have to get.

This summer, I hand you some books to get you into a reflective mode: think about your life, think about what you want(ed) to get out of it, and what you might need to change. These are definitely not all new works and I can’t really recall how each of these came into my life. One thing that connects them, however, might be a central word in the title of one of them: ‘slowness’. Much like the ‘slow food movement’, I guess you could call this a selection of ‘slow books’: books to read slowly, let the words sink in and maybe come back to certain parts again and again. ‘Slow books’ do not offer a quick fix to whatever it is you would like to change in your life. But I promise the books introduced below will give you a new perspective on your life and offer you ways to make gradual changes if you would allow yourself to come back to them again and again.

A Life beyond Boundaries by Benedict Anderson. I picked this book up because of a raving review in The Economist (‘an intellectual giant’). This memoir does not disappoint. It calls for an international outlook on life, and especially a comparative outlook on cultures. Anderson echoes Susan Nieman, who I recall saying that it is imperative for anyone to live in more than one culture to really understand the world. Anderson especially understood South East Asia, as he did a lot of anthropological field work there. This is a wonderful book on the need for international experience and a sweeping view of East Asian (colonial) history at that. One of many beautiful lines by Anderson:

The experience of strangeness makes all your senses much more sensitive than normal, and your attachment to comparison grows deeper.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. A book with apparently simple stories of encounters between a psychoanalyst and his patients. Through these stories, Grosz shows how insight – self-insight – can help us find ourselves after losing ourselves. This 2013 book is highly recommended by The New York Times and The Guardian, among others. One of the many things I highlighted in this wonderful selection of stories:

We hesitate, in the face of change, because change is loss. But if we don’t accept some loss (..) we can lose everything.

Into The Woods by John Yorke. What do The Bourne Ultimatum and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex have in common? Or Hamlet and Star Wars? For those of you have been reading my blogs posts over the last year, it will come as no surprise that I included a book that tries to explain why we humans like stories so much. (Click here to read my other posts that contain a reference to ‘stories’.) This book might hold the answer to that question and why stories matter so much in our personal lives. The Independent called it ‘a mind-blower’; The Financial Times put it on their summer reading list. This is a must-read. One of many highlighted sections in my copy:

It could be that [our own stories bring] us closer to God, to a sexual partner, to appropriate behavior, or to better mental health. But the journey into the woods, the finding of the missing part, its retrieval and the making of something whole, is integral. That something can be us, a puzzle, a mystery or any number of corruptions. As in scenes, so in story, a ridiculously simple process defines them all: two opposites are assimilated and a conflict is stilled. That is why we crave stories like a drug – for it is only through story that we are able to bring our inner selves into line with the external world. In that process some kind of sense is made, and if we’re lucky, some kind of truth discovered. Stories appear to be both as simple – and complex – as that.

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell. The Essays by Montaigne are still on my to-read pile (or ‘antilibrary’, after Umberto Eco), but this is a formidable book on the Essays and what Montaigne had to say on ‘how to live’. A great companion to life, trying to answer such questions as ‘how to get on well with people’, ‘how to deal with loss’, and ‘how to live’. There’s a lot of Stoicism in Montaigne:

Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.

If you are looking for a light-hearted book that is still full of insights and, as an added bonus, gives you a good bit of Renaissance history, this is your book.

Solitude by Anthony Storr. Another psychiatrist on this list. This book from the 1980s has maybe more insights packed into one volume than any other book I have ever read. Therefore, it’s probably the book I pick up most often to reread certain passages. One of the themes of the book is the need for solitude to be creative. There’s a lot on the mysterious role for ‘stories’ again (see Into the Woods), and I guess Csikszentmihalyi must have read this book as an inspiration for his wonderful books on creativity: Flow and Creativity. This is a must-read if you want to find out how to be more creative:

The ecstatic sense of wholeness is bound to be transient because it has no part in the total pattern of ‘adaptation through maladaptation’ which is characteristic of our species. Boeotian bliss [i.e. simple bliss; read Thucydides..] is not conducive to invention: the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realization that something is missing from awareness of incompleteness.

The Discovery Of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. The first novel on this summer’s reading list (‘absolutely stunning’ according to Times Literary Supplement) is a story about admiral and arctic explorer John Franklin. His dedication to understand things (‘he decided to not seek comfort but to think’) got him very far in life.  This is a rare animal: it is a novel about historic sea voyages (to the Arctic and Tasmania among others) and sea battles (e.g. Trafalgar), but also the story of a man who is determined to understand the world and people around him even if he is not particularly bright. We often find him in a slow, almost meditative, state of mind. As one of the character’s in the book puts it:

‘Do you know what I like about you, Mr Franklin? With most people everything moves fast until they understand, but when they get to the point it’s already over. You’re different.’

The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. I included this collection of stories because the Ivan Ilyich story is a superb depiction of memento mori which is a necessity for the reflective mode, I feel. It is about a man who looks back on his life and does not find a lot to like. There are more upbeat stories in this little volume, but The Death of Ivan Ilyich might just get you in the right frame of mind to think over your own life and then pick up another volume in this list to create some positive change.

I hope this list inspires you to read this summer. Need more recommendations? Last winter’s list (on contemporary philosophy) can be found here; last summer’s list (on Mediterranean history) can be found here.

Enjoy your summer.

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