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Belated Book List for 2011

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s taken me a long time to get this post together, but better late than never. One of the things I keep track of each year is the books I’ve read. Doing this every year gives me a time line of my personal development, and allows me to look back and see when it was that I read a particular book.

The past year and a half has been difficult, and one of the ways I’ve dealt with that is by reading books that help me understand what’s happening and learn to respond differently to some of the challenges in life. A major theme of last year was a painful relationship breakup that happened in September of 2010. So, my reading since then has been dominated by self-help books. Below are a few words about each book. I invite you to seek out and read any of these books that speak to you.

On Reading

I love to read, so much so that I even read about reading. Reading is a skill, and like any skill, it can be done well or it can be done poorly. If you do a lot of reading, whether for work or for pleasure, I recommend you study the skills involved in reading and become as effective a reader as you can.

10 Days to Faster Reading by the Princeton Language Institute and Abby Marks Beale

Like many speed-reading systems, this book promises to help you increase your reading speed while maintaining or even improving your comprehension. The book helped me double my reading speed while keeping my comprehension at 80100%, and I was already using techniques I learned at a speed-reading course I took in university almost 30 years ago.

It covers the usual inefficiencies that cause slow reading addressed by most speed-reading systems: regression (going back to re-read lines you have just read but didn’t absorb) and subvocalization (sounding out each word in your mind, or even moving your lips as you read). It also mentions poor concentration as a common cause of slow reading. Ironically, the remedy for poor concentration is to read faster! Beale argues that we lose our concentration while reading because we read so slowly that our mind gets bored and wanders off. If we read faster, the mind is forced to pay attention to keep up.

The usual techniques for increasing reading speed are offered, including stopping the eyes only two or three times per line of text, widening the field of vision and using a “pacer” or pointer to guide your eyes down the page. But then Beales goes on to discuss other techniques you can use, including pre-viewing, skimming and scanning, depending on the material you are reading and why you are reading it. In fact, Beales recommends that you always be aware of why you are reading a given text and what you want to get out of it.

Lots of speed-reading books exist, and this is probably not the only good one. Look for one that offers multiple techniques that help you read different materials at different speeds depending on the material and your purpose for reading it.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

I first read this book several years ago, and it remains one of my favourites. When the authors say “read a book”, they don’t mean to read for pleasure, or even for information, but for understanding. Many of Adler’s other projects have been based on “the great books”, those classics that stand the test of time, intriguing readers for decades or even centuries because they contain so much to challenge the reader. These are the books that How to Read a Book is concerned with. No single reading of a great book can reveal all of the insights the book contains, and at first the book may be over the reader’s head. By developing the reading skills described in this book, a skilled reader can increase his level of understanding and perhaps even his capacity for understanding. This is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow activities increasing a person’s complexity (see Flow below).

Meditation and Prayer

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

I’ve been a sporadic meditator for many years, and I’m still trying to get past the problems experienced by beginners. The fact that I don’t believe in reincarnation makes me ambivalent about Buddhism, and puts me off many books on meditation that go into more Buddhist philosophy than I care for.

Mindfulness in Plain English is just what it says: practical, easy-to-understand advice on meditation techniques (primarily focusing on the breath) and the problems that beginning meditators commonly experience. It describes the distinction between concentration and mindfulness, and how to balance the two. The book ends with a chapter on loving friendliness.

Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life by Erik Walker Wikstrom

A woman at my church led a group of us through a course based on this book. It uses a loose enough definition of “prayer” that even an atheist like me can develop a meaningful prayer practice. This becomes possible if you assume that prayer is about the person doing the praying, not whatever being is being prayed to. The book and course guide you through creating prayer that helps you focus on what you are thankful for, your shortcomings that you want to fix, what you want in life, and being rather than doing. Learning to articulate these things is the benefit I gain from prayer.

Self-Help

How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving by David Richo

Many books talk about how our adult relationships are influenced by our childhood relationships with our parents. This is the first book I’ve found that offers a detailed enough explanation to be useful.

Richo writes that to be happy, all of us need the same things throughout our lives. He calls them the five A’s: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection and allowing. When we are small, we need these in order to develop self-esteem and healthy identities. As adults, we need them in order to be happy in romantic relationships. We can learn to give and receive more of the five A’s, through compassionate mindfulness. Richo provides suggested practices to help readers achieve this.

The Undervalued Self by Elaine Aron

I knew there had to be a biological explanation for low self-esteem and why it is so common in humans, and this book offers an explanation for it. In short, undervaluing ourselves prevents us from entering confrontations and taking risks that could result in us getting hurt or losing status. However, holding an unrealistically low opinion of ourselves prompts us to accept a lower status, which limits us and makes us unhappy.

Aron discovered this idea while studying the social phenomena of “ranking” and “linking” that happen in many kinds of interactions between people (as well as in many other social species). We are ranking when we compare ourselves to other people or compete for status. We are linking when we build relationships and take care of others. Both ranking and linking are innate and necessary parts of how we interact, and they are the keys to learning how to have better relationships and feel better about ourselves. The answer: more linking and less ranking.

The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey

Musician and music teacher Barry Green applies Tim Gallwey’s “inner game” theory to music. In many things we do in life, whether it’s playing tennis, giving a speech, or performing music, there is an “outer game”how we actually performand an “inner game”—what goes on in our head while we perform. The doubts and self-criticism that often comprise our inner game interfere with our outer game by distracting us and draining energy. Gallwey’s inner game approach teaches us how to stop interfering with ourselves and achieve more of our potential.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’ve heard snippets about this classic book since it was first published in 1990, but got around to reading it only last year. It’s the kind of book that makes me think, “why didn’t I read this book years ago?” In short, it is about how people can have happier lives by spending their time in activities of optimal experience, or flow. A flow activity must offer a level of challenge equal to your skill level, it must have clear goals, and must provide feedback so you know how well you are achieving the goals. When you are in such activities, you forget about the world and yourself and time flies by. The challenge enables you to grow as a person and become more complex, in Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology.

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert

A lot of research is being done on compassion as a remedy for various social and personal ailments (check out Karen Armstrong’s work), including depression. Gilbert’s book describes some of this research and how we can use it to feel happier and less depressed. The first part of the book explains the biological and evolutionary foundations of compassion, and the second part describes exercises for developing and practising compassion. According to Gilbert, we are programmed by biology and evolution to respond to kindness and compassion. Acting compassionately toward ourselves and others can help us learn to soothe ourselves and feel more safe and secure.

Science

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The thesis of this book is that the fundamental unit of evolution is the gene, not the organism or the species. Dawkins’s enthusiasm for evolution is evident and makes the book a pleasure to read. This was Dawkins’s first book, on science, before he began to write about atheism and religion. In this book, his most virulent attack (in the notes in the back of the 2nd and 3rd editions of the book) is on people who write computer viruses.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

This is a classic in the history of science. Kuhn argues that science does not progress in a uniform direction, incrementally adding information to our existing body of knowledge. Rather, it goes through stable periods of scientists working along with accepted “paradigms” until a paradigm’s ability to explain observed phenomena breaks down, causing a crisis, or “revolution” in that discipline. A new paradigm must then be chosen that better explains reality. The classic example of this is the change from the geocentric (Earth-centred) view of the solar system to the heliocentric (sun-centred) model, but Kuhn describes several other examples too. Kuhn writes about how social and political the scientific endeavour is, as opposed to the popular view that it is based entirely on evidence and reason.

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