Sunday, 5 March 2017

19 quotes for people who love books from Books for Living: A Reader's Guide to Life by Will Schwalbe

Will Schwalbe's Books for Living: a Reader's Guide to Life was published earlier this year, five years
after The End of Your Life Book ClubBack in January, I wrote about how Books for Living had
helped me to slow down, make time for the important stuff, and ask others more often, "What are you reading?"

Since writing my review, I've been pondering the book and asking some questions about my own reading habits. First and foremost, why am I not reading as much fiction these days? 

To start addressing this, I recently read – and absolutely loved – Elephant Moon by John Sweeney and The North Water by Ian McGuire. Both books reminded me of how much I enjoy (and need) regular doses of fiction.

Reading fiction is how I wind down, escape from work and worries, and become a better me. The business and self-improvement books I can sometimes gravitate towards don't cut it.

To help keep this in mind, I've compiled some of the many quotes I highlighted, underlined, and applauded in Will Schwalbe's Books for Living. I hope that other keen readers will enjoy these too.

- - - - -

1. On looking to books for answers

2. On being a librarian, bookseller and reader

3. Reading makes us feel less alone

4. Talking about books is the greatest gift

5. Searching for books to help us make sense of the world

6. On accidentally discovering books that change your life

7. One question we should ask more often

8. Don't ignore book recommendations from the universe

9. The best part of interrupting a book with a nap

10. Let others nap

11. Books improve us without us trying

12. Books and people are bound together

13. Every book changes your life

14. The love of reading is greatest when we don't know we're reading

15. Reading is an art

16. Books don't need to be thick enough to stop bullets

17. Reading brings with it responsibility

18. On beautiful endings

19. Reading widely is a way to become more fully human – and more humane

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Sunday, 19 February 2017

"Life – her life – depended on self-discipline": Reading Elephant Moon by John Sweeney to rediscover perseverance and wonder

I don’t think anyone’s immune from the doldrums. The same goes for loneliness. Just recently, I felt a wave of something tinged with sadness and just wanted to be comfortable and tucked up some place familiar. I didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe this is what loneliness feels like, I thought. Huh.

I’m a fine candidate for loneliness by any account. I intentionally distance myself from most people and live a life that’s really not that far from a hermit’s. But I’ve never thought much about feeling lonely. Alone, yes. But not lonely.

So, that’s how I came to need a book that would cheer me up, transport me somewhere else, and warm up my state of mind a little. Warm up might sound a little odd, but that’s what I wanted. I often gravitate towards books about the Arctic (and I love to travel there too), but that wasn’t what I needed. I was feeling out of character, and I wanted to read about an out of character place. I chose Burma during World War II.

After a few pages, I knew I’d chosen the right fiction prescription. Elephant Moon by John Sweeney is a book to uplift your soul and fill you with hope and the knowledge that life – while no doubt containing so much suffering – is a real wonder.

Life – her life – depended on self-discipline, on keeping her mind level and focused.

It’s a book that will show you love, great perseverance, and a destination in reach when it seems impossible – and elephants. Elephants (along with a joint favourite, the glorious emperor penguin) fascinate me with their intelligence, their bulk, their wise long-lashed eyes, and their compassion.

As the Second World War rages, the Japanese Imperial Army enters Burma and the British rulers prepare to flee. But the human legacy of the British Empire will be left behind in the shape of sixty-two Anglo-Burmese children, born to local women after affairs with foreign men. Half-castes, they are not acknowledged by either side and they are to be abandoned with no one to protect them. Their teacher, Grace Collins, a young Englishwoman, refuses to join the European evacuation and instead sets out to deliver the orphans to the safety of India. She faces impossible odds because between her and India lie one thousand miles of jungle, mountains, rivers and the constant, unseen threat of the Japanese. With Japanese soldiers chasing them down, the group's chances of survival shrink - until they come across a herd of fifty-three elephants who, with their awesome strength and kindness, quickly become the orphans only hope of survival. Based on a true story, Elephant Moon is an unforgettable epic tale of courage and compassion in the midst of brutality and destruction. (Amazon)

It's a book that deals with serious themes, but as with life, there's also humour and great beauty:

‘As it happens, I’m trying to learn Japanese at the moment.’ ‘Why?’ ‘To pass the time.’ A reply so transparently nonsensical that she could not help being a little intrigued. ‘No one learns Japanese to pass the time, Mr Peach.’ He said something in a soft lilt, strange tones rising and falling, and then translated: ‘One fallen flower returning to the branch? ‘Oh no! ‘A pale butterfly.’ 

Read Elephant Moon if you'd like an escape from life for a couple of days; if things feel a bit too much, or if you’d like to just marvel at the courage and determination of someone else while you’re having much-needed time to rest and recuperate.

When you’re ready to resume being a warrior in your own life, this book will help put you where you need to be.

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Saturday, 28 January 2017

Books for Living: a reader's guide to life by Will Schwalbe - a reminder to slow down and savour life

Every once in a while, a book comes along that gets me really excited about other books. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe was one of them. When I read it back in 2013, it came at precisely the right time.

I was twenty, working for a tech startup in Barcelona for a year, and struggling. I'd had a course of EMDR therapy for post-traumatic shock the year before, and it made a huge difference to my confidence. But I still had some work to do. Living alone, in a small badly-chosen flat without proper windows, and abroad for the first time? It was a challenge.

I was pushing myself. I'm glad I did, because it worked out exceptionally well in the end, but I needed all the support I could get. I got a lot of that support from books. Reading The End of Your Life Book Club encouraged me to read, to keep working on Tolstoy Therapy, and to do something meaningful every day.

I included the book in my winter reading recommendations, and in July 2015, I shared Will Schwalbe's wonderful line about why The Hobbit might have remained such a favourite book of his: "I think it's because it shows that people–or hobbits, as the case may be–can find strength they didn't know they had".

- - - - -

When I saw that Will Schwalbe had written another book, Books for Living: a reader's guide to lifeagain about the power of books, I knew I'd have to move it to the top of my to-read list. I read most of Books for Living on a train to and from Zurich one weekend, finishing it up on Sunday afternoon tucked up under blankets in my house (the book has that pleasant effect on you). The book is the author's opportunity – and our own – to ask, why is it that we read?

I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.

For Will Schwalbe, there are so many reasons that not reading is not an option. Books entertain, allow us to make sense of the world, help us to become a better person, and let us figure out our own answer to how to live our lives.

Chapter by chapter, Will Schwalbe shares books that speak to the particular challenges of our modern lives. There are thrillers, children's literature and cookbooks shared as antidotes to the noise, distractions, and screens that challenge our missions to live fulfilled and happy lives.

Most memorable is when Will Schwalbe connects these books to the real reason why he chose them; the story of why they left such a mark. This comes down to one repeated theme: people. There are the people he grew up with, the people who have now gone, and the people who remain a happy part of his life. Each one has a story, and it's a pleasure to read these.

Books, Will Schwalbe shows us, allow us to honour those we've loved and define how we want to live each day more fully. And, of course, it reminds us to keep reading. The books we read become a part of us, as do the authors and the authors who influenced them. What could be better for personal growth than absorbing the wisdom and life lessons of the ages?

Books for Living is for all of us who love to ask and be asked: "What are you reading?" When I next ask someone that question, which I hope to be very soon, I'll think back to this book.

- - - - -
I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started. Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones. Every book changes your life. So I like to ask: How is this book changing mine?

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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Stargazing as therapy: reminders to look up at the night sky from Tim Ferriss, BJ Miller, Ed Cooke

One of my favourite books of 2016 was Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. It was also one of the longest I read last year, at 704 pages for the hardcover. 

The title of the book is intriguing, and it delivers too. The content is heavily based on the Tim Ferriss Podcast – which includes interviews with some of the most interesting and accomplished people out there – but it also dives deeper into the tactics, routines, and habits that have brought them such brilliant results.

As expected, some things come up again and again. Meditation, morning rituals and setting aside time for pondering were oft-cited as secrets of success, but it was something lesser-mentioned that intrigued me most: stargazing as therapy.

Yes, we've all looked up at the stars before. And calling it therapy could seem silly. But it's something that I appreciated being reminded of. It's so easy to forget about the stars.

I feel very lucky to have my walk home from work. When it gets dark early in winter, I have the privilege of an unspoilt nighttime panorama with Orion above me.

After reading Tools of Titans, I now pay a bit more attention. I try to sit out on my balcony at night more often, or just look out the window after turning the lights off. I sit, admire, and ponder. It's my nightly free therapy session. Sometimes I need a reminder to do it and pay proper attention, but when I do, it's absolutely worth it.

As BJ Miller says in Tools of Titans:

When you are struggling with just about anything, look up. Just ponder the night sky for a minute and realize that we’re all on the same planet at the same time. As far as we can tell, we're the only planet with life like ours on it anywhere nearby. Then you start looking at the stars, and you realize that the light hitting your eye is ancient, [some of the] stars that you’re seeing, they no longer exist by the time that the light gets to you.

He adds,

"Just mulling the bare-naked facts of the cosmos is enough to thrill me, awe me, freak me out, and kind of put all my neurotic anxieties in their proper place. A lot of people—when you’re standing at the edge of your horizon, at death’s door, you can be much more in tune with the cosmos."

Ed Cooke, the Memory Champion and Co-founder of Memrise (who I've been so impressed by for years), shares something similar in Tools of Titans:

I'd just think, ‘Oh, everything feels terrible and awful. It’s all gone to shit.’ Then I’d [consider], ‘But if you think about it, the stars are really far away,’ then you try to imagine the world from the stars. Then you sort of zoom in and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s this tiny little character there for a fragment of time worrying about X.’ 

Looking up at the stars and thinking about our place in the cosmos doesn't come with a price tag. If you can see the sky it's accessible, and you don't need to do anything to turn the stars on. You don't even need to travel. All you need is a clear enough day and the motivation to go or look outside.

Like Tim Ferriss says, "The effects are disproportionate to the effort". The stars are one of nature's finest beauties and they're just out there waiting for us to admire them.

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Living and hiking the literary heritage of Tolkien in the Swiss Alps

Looking out of my window at the Reichenbach Falls and the mountains above it comes with a small sense of triumph. I have hiked over them to reach Grindelwald on one hike and more recently Chaltenbrunnen, the reddish Hochmoor (or upland moor) at 1875m. The landscape is awe-inspiring here and, of course, more so as you venture up.

The literary heritage that the Swiss Alps have acquired is not really a surprise – beautiful landscapes produce beautiful art. And being such a bookish person, it's probably also expected that as I learn more about the echoes of my surroundings in literature, I love the mountains here that little bit more.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set "The Final Problem" here in Meiringen, home of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. Tolstoy recorded in his diary his impressions of a walk from Montreux on the Lake Geneva shore to Meiringen in the spring of 1857 (more on that another day). And in 1911, J. R. R. Tolkien came to Switzerland, aged nineteen and about to start his first term at Oxford. 

The Wellhorn, Wetterhorn and, hidden away, the Reichenbach falls of Sherlock Holmes fame.

"On foot with a heavy pack", Tolkien set off with a group about the same size as that in The Hobbit and, in the Alpine heart of Switzerland, walked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen and Mürren.

The group then went northeast to Grindelwald and Meiringen, south east through the Grimsel Pass, and then south west by the Aletsch glacier in the direction of the Matterhorn, arriving finally at Sion in the Valais canton.

I took the opposite direction of Tolkien for only a portion of the way – from Meiringen to Grindelwald, then Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen and Mürren - but still savoured the overlaps with Tolkien's own adventure.

Following Tolkien's hiking path through the Swiss Alps. This point is close to the Kleine Scheidegg train station.

The Aareschluct in Meiringen, one of the towns that Tolkien passed through in 1911. 

Switzerland's Misty Mountains: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

Like so many other travellers, Tolkien and I have both admired the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Tolkien went on to use these mountains as inspiration for The Misty Mountains in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings among other components of his legendarium.

Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirak-zigil and Bundushathûr.

- Spoken by Gimli in The Fellowship of the Ring

Tolkien is also thought to have based Rivendell on the Lauterbrunnen valley. It makes sense: the landscape here is utterly sublime. Even the name, 'Lauter Brunnen', meaning 'many fountains' in German, is magnificent.

Tolkien's original illustration of Rivendell, 1937 (public domain).

Walking down into the Lauterbrunnen valley from Grindelwald

"Evil things do not come into this valley... We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark."

- Spoken by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring

- - - - -

Being here in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland is in itself rejuvenating. I love the peace, the mountains, and the life I've cultivated for this stage of my early twenties. But thinking about the inspiration that Tolkien found here in the Alps also reminds me to set aside time for writing. 

Of course, it's not that I want to follow in Tolkien's literary footsteps. It's rather so I can document my experiences and create something out of them. It doesn't have to change the world, it just needs to be written.

Memories are wonderful furniture for a mind, but they don't leave a physical mark. Even if your audience isn't much to speak of, there's still much to be said for journaling, documenting, writing, and creating. I think that one of the obligations of having beautiful memories is to share them with others, or at least to put them out there so they have a chance of discovery. I hope you can find the time to do that too. It would surely be a worthy goal to have for the year ahead.

A version of this article was originally published here.

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Saturday, 17 December 2016

The 28 books that stopped my worrying, sent me travelling, and shaped who I am today

It's a long, long journey out of the trap of anxiety and not believing in yourself. When you're used to hiding away, making yourself smaller, and never speaking up, a bold change is needed for things to be different.

When I was living at home, I didn't have the motivation nor the opportunities to leap out of my comfort zone and I feared what people might say if I were suddenly not shy. I had to go travelling to test drive a more confident version of myself. And when I had experienced what it felt like to not hide in the corner, I decided to move abroad and keep challenging myself.

Even when you have shed the most unwelcome and crippling parts of anxiety, the kind that stops you from going out and experiencing the world like everyone else, sometimes it can still suck. A niggling feeling threatens to take you back to where you were before. The world can feel too much and you just want to get back into bed. At those times, it can feel as if you haven't progressed at all. 

While this doesn't happen to me so much these days, it's more likely when I visit home and I'm surrounded by the people who knew what I was like growing up. Then I can revert back to my young-and-painfully-shy setting and my achievements in work and life seem utterly implausible to everyone in the room.

But I've grown so much and I know that these are momentary blips. My confidence bounces back. I go back to my job and jump into my habitual I'm confident and got my shit together persona. I remember that I don't have to be shy and nervous and that it's much easier and less stressful if I'm not.

I wasn't sure I'd get here, but it happened – with the help of a whole lot of brilliant books, a few people who really left a mark on my life, and a bit of professional intervention. Of those things, there are some I can't share with you, but I can definitely share books. Here are those that come to mind first.

Livraria Lello Porto, Portugal – an influence for Harry Potter and probably the most beautiful (and busiest) bookshop I've been to. Image from Local Porto.


1. Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

This is the book I reread to...  Learn by heart how to approach life with more resilience than I thought possible.

2. The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

To make sure I keep reading and talking about books.

3. Gratitude - Oliver Sacks

To remember life is "an enormous privilege and adventure".

4. Walden - Henry David Thoreau

To spend more time in nature and living simply.

5. Deep Work - Cal Newport

To learn how to really focus.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

To think about the true value of a sunset.

7. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

To decide how I want to be spending the time I have.

8. The Creative Habit - Twyla Tharp

To fiercely defend my creative time at the crack of dawn.

9. The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank

To never forget how lucky I am.

10. Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations - Jules Evans

The first book I ever wrote about on Tolstoy Therapy.

- - - - -

Fiction and verse

11. Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

To offer dreams of coffee, whisky, mountains and libraries.

12. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

To imagine life and love, war and peace.

13. "Ulysses" (poem) - Alfred Lord Tennyson

To be strong when I think of the past.

14. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

To imagine escaping abroad.

15. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

To think about what’s enough.

16. King Lear - William Shakespeare

To contemplate how small a place we occupy in the world.

17. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis de Bernières

To love.

18. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J. K. Rowling

To think back to my first role model in fiction.

19. The Odyssey - Homer

To learn how humans have kept going since the beginning.

20. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

To persevere.

21. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende

To realise that quiet can mean power.

22. The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

To create a garden in my mind.

23. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

To remember that spring is the best season "for plans and proposals".

24. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

To never forget my family and where I came from.

25. The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien

To just set off.

26. Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín

To be conscious of the repercussions of changing myself.

27. The Secret History - Donna Tartt

To marvel at a mind filled with poetry, language, and facts.

28. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

To seek refuge in bookshops.

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