Thursday, March 14, 2013

Books that Matter

On the theory that a good nonfiction book needs a bibliography, here's a start on mine. These are books that have influenced and inspired me. They are the books that I will never sell at a yard sale. I don't usually read books twice, but these books are the ones I read over again, flag the pages, underline passages, and write in the margins.

Taking Creative Pursuits Seriously
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. A twelve-step program for sidestepping creative blocks, self-censorship, and false criticism. Requires about 8 hours a week if you're going to take it seriously, and it's easier to go through the program with a weekly group to hold each other accountable. If you really engage in the chapters and exercises, you will definitely move outside your comfort zone -- and that's a good thing.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte. A funny, very personal account of the writer's life. The personal anecdotes convey wise lessons in perseverance, overcoming one's inner critic, and getting your work out into the world.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. A writer's life is not all flashes of inspiration and muse-driven all-nighters. Writing well requires writing, rewriting, revising, revamping, and rewriting again. Every day. The payoff? The art we make is "as true to reality as it gets".

Self Discovery
Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. Employee performance reviews and professional development programs so often focus on helping employees address their weak points. Since nobody can excel at everything, wouldn't it be better and more satisfying to focus instead on the things that you are best at and that come most naturally to you? Team up with someone whose strengths complement yours, and now you've got a strong, motivated team.

Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny. The title of this book put me off at first, but I soon got over it. Stanny is not writing exclusively about high-powered female executives. Rather, she has some very apt advice to offer women on taking our own goals seriously and presenting ourselves confidently. Earning a six-figure income was not a goal of mine when I first read this book (in fact, it seemed ridiculous), but eventually, I did clear that six-figure bar by asking for what I was worth.

What Color Is Your Parachute? by Nelson Bolles. I have an ancient, pre-Internet edition of this reliable old standby. The self-evaluation exercises are just as good now as they were then. Do you like working outdoors or indoors? With people or alone? What do you value most: security, money, recognition, adventure...? What would it be like to base your career on things that you actually enjoy doing?

How the World Works
American Mania by Peter C. Whybrow. What if an entire nation were the subject of a centuries-long genetic experiment? Whybrow posits that this is exactly what is going on in the United States. From the ancient wanderers who crossed the Bering Strait to the world citizens who maintain their tiny flats in New York City, the US has been settled and populated by the adventurous and the dissatisfied. The result is a type of collective bipolar disorder marked by euphoric highs and catastrophic crashes.

Bright Earth by Philip Ball. Visual artists are visionaries, but they are also creatures of their time. This history of the evolution of color in art covers pigments, dyes, and printing techniques. From ground-up rock pigments for cave paintings to color palettes for computer monitors, from a nobleman's display of wealth to an evocation of pop culture, Ball explores how color perception and use varies with culture and time.

Faster by James Gleick. Every aspect of our 21st-century society is infected with the need for speed. Channel-surfing, multitasking, stand-up meetings, and sound bites characterize an environment that stresses us out, eliminates time for thoughtful analysis, and leaves no margin for error.

Fire in the Mind by George Johnson. European-American culture is so steeped in scientific data and analytical reasoning that we often forget that there are other ways of looking at the world. Johnson, a science writer who lives in Santa Fe, NM, contrasts the core tenets of the scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory with those of the nearby Native American and Catholic Penitente communities.

The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. Remember printed telephone directories? Film photography? The Sony Walkman? These items went from indispensable to obsolete in the blink of an eye, not because of some public campaign to abolish them, but because their replacements worked their way up from nerd's toys to market dominance.

The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida. Why are some towns "cooler" than others (and I'm not talking about the weather)? Why do creative people gravitate toward certain types of workplaces? How can cities and employers attract and reward people who live by their creative wits?

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Connectors, mavens, and salesmen -- each has a role in discovering a small idea and "taking it viral". Why do some ideas catch on and not others? What are the early symptoms of a big change? Fashion trends, crime waves, and "The British are coming!" all factor into this fascinating analysis.

Other Worlds
Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace. This is the first DFW book I ever read, and I was hooked. Lenore Beadsman, the only semi-sane character in this book, navigates the bizarre disappearance of her grandmother and a couple dozen fellow nursing home residents, a brother who stores drugs in drawers in his artificial leg, her pet cockatiel rising to stardom on a Christian television network, and a host of other increasingly wacky plot elements that somehow all come together at the end.

Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien creates an entire world, complete with centuries' worth of history, languages, and an army of characters. That he not only sustains his plot over a couple thousand pages, but immerses you entirely in his vivid landscapes and the lives of his characters is an astounding feat. Grand themes of good and evil, deep friendship, and the call of duty are woven deftly into a riveting story.

Moonheart and Spirit Walk by Charles de Lint. If I ever go missing, you might want to start looking for me in a section of Ottowa bounded by Central Park and Patterson, Clemow, and Bank Streets. I've taken up permanent residence in Tamson House or one of the myriad Otherworlds to which it serves as a portal. Don't expect me to come home.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Underneath the city of London is a parallel society where Knightsbridge becomes a night's bridge that swallows the unwary in its darkness. The Angel, Islington is an actual angel. A girl name Door can walk through walls. Richard Mayhew, a humdrum citizen of London Above, comes to Door's aid and is drawn into the life of London Below as a result.

Spritual Matters
The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong traces the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to illustrate how believers' concept of God has shifted and changed over the centuries. This book explores how man creates God in his own image, and must re-create the image when it ceases to be useful.

The Feminine Face of God by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins. This is a compilation of the moving and heartfelt accounts of women who, faced with deeply unsatisfying beliefs and cultural practices within their original religions, went out looking for an experience of the transcendent that they could call their own.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong. In this broad survey of the clash between modernism and fundamentalism in the western world, Armstrong shows that the fundamentalist movements within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have more in common with each other than they do with the more moderate expressions of their source religions.


  1. It is a great article.You provide great content about spiritual matter.

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  2. Ooh. I'm gonna have to print out your list and take it with me next time I go to the library.


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