Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Study Success: 11 Books & Articles to Help Students Hack Their Education

Today's article is slightly different from what I'd normally write about, but I'll use the excuse that the next academic year is approaching. Also, perhaps one or two of my readers are students (do lifelong students count?)

I've always enjoyed reading about learning techniques and study hacks, particularly when it comes to increasing efficiency and recall. Considering all the facts and dates I've forgotten from school, I don't want to do the same with my degree just yet.

Here are the books and articles which have most influenced my studying. Some of which have helped me pass exams I thought I wouldn't, while others have just provided me with useful and unconventional learning techniques.

11 best books and articles for study success
What books and articles have helped you to develop better study habits and learning methods? Image from picjumbo.

How to Win at College by Cal Newport
How to Win at College by Cal Newport

1. How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country's Top Students - Cal Newport

Cal Newport's research is fascinating, and he's achieved a lot. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004, went on to get a Ph.D. from MIT in 2009, and is now an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.

In addition to his academic work, he's published four superb books, largely focused on "contrarian, evidence-based advice for building a successful and fulfilling life" both in school and after graduation. How to Win at College may seem a bit unoriginal if you glance at the title and subtitle alone, but there's much more to it. Start by having a look at some of Newport's articles (linked below) on Study Hacks.

2. How to Get a First: Insights and Advice from a First-class Graduate - Michael Tefula

If you're at a British university and aiming for the top, you'll want to get a 1st class degree. This book is a bit more generic than Cal Newport's research, but it's still useful, particularly when it comes to investigating "the growth mindset"

3. The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need - Daniel H. Pink

This is next on my reading list, as a book I've heard plenty of good stuff about. In descriptions of the book we're told that "the unlikeliest career advisor" gives six essential lessons for "thriving in the world of work". I'm certainly interested.

4. So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport

Daniel H. Pink study and career advice book
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko
by Daniel H. Pink

The premise of this book is that "following your passion" is bad advice and we'd do much better to cultivate our skills. It's more directed at the world of work than Newport's three other study-skills books, but we'd all do well to read it, students or otherwise. Newport's certainly convinced me not to become too wrapped up in the "passion myth".

5. Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will - Dale J. Stephens

Yes, the title of this one is slightly pretentious. However, Stephens helps you to create opportunities for yourself and tailor your curriculum - inside and outside the classroom. Whether you're wanting to travel, start a company, or succeed in business, this book has some great advice of how to get started now instead of waiting for graduation.

The best articles for students I've come across:

6. My plea to college students looking for a job or internship (Michael Adams)

7. How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying (Scott Young)

8. Studies and Studying: How Do Top Students Study? (Quora)

9. The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More by Doing Less (Study Hacks)

10. The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life (Study Hacks)

11. The Notebook Method: How Pen and Paper Can Transform You Into a Star Student (Study Hacks)

Here's to a great academic year, both for the college students and the lifelong-learners! Do you have any other books or articles to add?

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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Tips for Reading War and Peace & Getting Started with Leo Tolstoy

A reader recently got in touch to ask what advice I'd give for reading War and Peace the first time. I've written before about the reasons why I love War and Peace, but with any 1300-page book, it takes some motivation to get started and, perhaps more so, to keep going.

If you've been looking to read the almighty Russian tome, perhaps this article may help you out. The following tips are based on my own experience, but I hope some readers find it useful.

A backdrop to envisage War and Peace. Scene in Red Square, Moscow, 1801. Oil on canvas by Fedor Yakovlevich Alekseev.

Think about what's motivating you to read it

I'm motivated to read War and Peace because I know it has a positive effect on me. It helps me to confront my anxiety in a mindful way, and I know I have a lot more to learn from the characters and Tolstoy's life lessons.

You may have been recommended the book by a friend, or you may want to say you've read it. Perhaps you've seen it on screen, or you're eagerly anticipating the BBC adaptation and would like to know a bit more about it. You might have read a few quotes and enjoyed them or wanted to hear more.

Look for the character (or characters) you can relate to

For me it's Pierre Bezukov with his lack of social graces but also his desire to do good and act in a moral way. But there's also Natasha Rostov's vibrant sense of life, Andrei's disillusionment, and Sonya's humility, as just a few examples. We can learn from their successes and failures, and understand a bit more about ourselves in the process.

“Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and I now believe in it. Let the dead bury the dead, but while I'm alive, I must live and be happy.”

While there are hundreds of characters in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy wants us to find the ones who really matter. I'd say it's like differentiating between friends and one-time acquaintances in our own lives.

Reading War and Peace can take a while - that's fine

Whether you choose to read a chapter a week, a chapter a day, or to do away with all targets whatsoever, read it in your own way. You could also try listening to an audiobook, perhaps while you travel, walk or go about chores. This is something I'm planning to do for my reading of War and Peace next August.
The Penguin edition of War and Peace,
translated by Anthony Briggs.

Don't hesitate to start again with a different translation

My favourite translation is the Anthony Briggs, although the Maude translation is defined by many as the definitive War and Peace. The Pevear and Volokhonsky is probably the most commercially available of all, and I know lots of people who have loved it, but I couldn't get into it.

I'd say it's worth sitting down in a bookshop and reading the first page of each translation available. Alternatively, if you find one translation difficult to read or get into, don't hesitate to start a different one (no matter how far you are through the book).

Keep notes, read summaries or stock-up on Post-its (whatever works for you)

On my first reading of War and Peace I simply read it through. I didn't make notes, but I did refer to the chapter summaries at the back of my edition when I got confused.

On my next reading I started writing about the book here on the blog, and I also underlined favourite passages made some notes in the book (this will probably offend a few readers!)

This year I've been sticking Post-it notes all over my books to help me categorise quotes I love, topics I'd like to write about, and connections to other books. I'm not far through War and Peace yet this August, yet there's already enough Post-its on my copy for a lifetime (with 1200 more pages, it could be a terrifying amount).

Treat it like any other book

War and Peace is just a book. How would you go about reading any other book? Do the same with Tolstoy (ok, and perhaps persevere a little more).

“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.”

The Battle of Borodino (1812) is vividly depicted in War and Peace. Painting by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1822.

In my opinion, here's why I think you should read it

  • Tolstoy knew all about failure in love, work, friendships and ambition (and much more). He wasn't perfect - certainly not towards his wife - and neither are his characters. I think this all amounts to a great deal of authenticity.
  • To say that War and Peace is about everything isn't really exaggerating. While I would say it is too long in places (ahem, the essays at the end), there's so much to mull over and compare to our own lives. For me, it's like a handbook for life, both in helping me realise what to do and what definitely not to do.
  • (If you need more convincing, here are twelve more reasons why I'm such a supporter of War and Peace)

If you've read War and Peace, what would be your tip for another reader who's keen to get started on it?

Further reading

I'd also encourage you to seek out some of the great work by Russian literature scholars. Tolstoy: A Russian Life (2011) by Rosamund Bartlett is my favourite biography, while Andrew D. Kaufman's Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times (2014) makes a great case to give the book a go.

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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Poetry for Letting Go: In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver for letting go

Lately I've been reflecting on good poems to learn by heart, and "In Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver has caught my attention. I think this piece is applicable to both life's challenges and quieter plateaus, so I'd say it fits my unwritten requirements for memorised verse.

I know that the following lines will help me with grief and loss when it comes, and help me get back to what's really important when things are hectic:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

There's something I find calming and quite freeing about reading this over. As if the pressure is taken off for a moment. Mary Oliver neatly summarises something I often forget - that letting go is always possible in some sense. It also parallels the simple wisdom in I Am Pilgrim that "if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go".

Whatever it is we're letting go of, and however we're going to go about doing it, I think Mary Oliver can be a great mentor for the process.

You can read the full poem of "In Blackwater Woods" here, or you can find it in the American Primitive anthology. You can also read my article on waking up early with the help of Mary Oliver.

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Saturday, 16 August 2014

On Visiting Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's Home, to Better Enjoy His Poetry

I recently spent three days in the English Lake District, which could only mean one thing: a mandatory visit to Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's home between 1799 - 1808. Located in Grasmere, a short but idyllic bus journey from Windermere, fans of Romanticism - or any other reader or visitor - can tour the 400-year-old cottage and garden where Wordsworth wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language.

Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home
The view of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home, from the top of the garden.

This is where Wordworth spent over eight years of "plain living, but high thinking", writing much of the poetry for which he is best remembered today. This includes his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", "Ode to Duty", "My Heart Leaps Up", "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud", and parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude. Dove Cottage is also where Dorothy Wordworth, William's sister, wrote her famous Grasmere Journals, now on display in the adjacent museum.

On my visit to Dove Cottage I had a tour of the house, as a building of stone floors, dark panelled rooms, small windows and fireplaces throughout. You can see the seat where Wordsworth penned his most famous poems, and sit in the garden, their place of rest, mindfulness and inspiration. It was, wrote Wordsworth, ‘the work of our own hands’. Here the family planted flowers and vegetables, watched birds and butterflies and, above all, read and wrote poetry.

Wordsworth's garden of Dove Cottage

By spending time in the near-sublime surroundings of the Lake District, alongside Wordsworth's home and garden, it's easy to get a sense of where the poet found his inspiration and motivation to write. You can also form an idea why other Romantic poets - including Coleridge, Robert Southey and Charles Lamb - were so influenced by the area. I know I'd like to spend more time here writing and reading.

During my visit there was also a temporary exhibition on "Walking Poets", comparing Wordworth's poetry to the haikus of Bashō, which contained some really beautiful art interweaving the words of both poets. Would I have made this connection without visiting Dove Cottage? I doubt it, so the Wordsworth Trust certainly deserve a pat on the back.

Dove Cottage in the Lake District
The front of Dove Cottage, located in Grasmere.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

- "My Heart Leaps Up" - William Wordsworth
Dove Cottage poetry in the garden
"The peas are beaten down. The scarlet beans want sticking. The garden is overrun with weeds." Dorothy Wordsworth 1800.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

-From "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud"

Dorothy Wordsworth 'Timon of Athens' quote
"I read Timon of Athens. Dried linen. Molly weeded the turnips. John stuck the peas." Dorothy Wordsworth, 1800.

Have you visited the home of any other famous writers or artists? If so, did you also get a sense of how they found their inspiration in their home and surroundings?

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Thursday, 14 August 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes: One of The Best Thrillers Ever Written?

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes reviewAs I was approaching London Charing Cross on the train last month, I saw a nearby passenger completely engrossed in a book. He got off the train with the pages still open and sat down on a bench just opposite the train doors to finish his page. Later that same day, I heard the same book - I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes - recommended by one friend to another in Waterstones.

When you keep hearing a book be praised by complete strangers, I think you have to readjust your reading list accordingly.

I Am Pilgrim is a superb book, and I think the Guardian have it right when they say that it is "the only thriller you need to read this year".

It's a debut, surprisingly, written by an author born in my home county in the South East of England, Sussex. Terry Hayes's credentials do much to explain his achievement with I Am Pilgrim, however: he write the screenplay for Road Warrior/Mad Max 2 alongside a large number of other films and TV series.

What goes on in I Am Pilgrim

This novel is the perfect fit for cinema. It tells the story of Pilgrim, a codename for a man who doesn't exist. He's the adopted son of a wealthy American family, once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence, and wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation before retiring from the 'secret world'.

However, when somebody uses his book to commit the perfect crime, Pilgrim is pulled back to his anonymous career and all the danger it entails. Tracked down by NYPD detective Ben Bradley, Pilgrim is confronted with a textbook murder in a rundown New York hotel which combines the most challenging aspects of all the crimes he has ever been confronted with.

The plot develops, and Pilgrim is left to solve a deeper crime of international importance. Caught between the mysteries of an American hotel room murder, a suspicious suicide on the Turkish coast, and the journey of an extremist from a public beheading in Saudi Arabia to creating a deadly virus, this is no simple thriller. The separate plots swell and entwine, and we're left to make our own calculations while following the impressive deductions of Pilgrim.

I had got up in the morning and by the time I was ready for bed it was a different planet—the world doesn't change in front of your eyes; it changes behind your back.

- Pilgrim on 9/11, a sentiment so many of us can relate to

Read it for the main character (especially if you like Jason Bourne)

If you pick up I Am Pilgrim for one reason, do it for the main character. Pilgrim - otherwise known as Scott Murdoch, Jude Garrett and Peter Campbell (try not to think of Mad Men...) - may be anonymous to the world, but he isn't to the reader. We're fully exposed to his brilliant intelligence, including a psychology degree from Harvard and the rare ability to get to the raw truth of a crime.

However, we're also privy to his very human weaknesses. Pilgrim is left with much unsaid after his adopted father passes away, and many a reader can relate to his feelings of regret which make closure seem impossible. Also, we're all too aware of the character's desire for love and normality in a lifestyle which makes both impossible.

If you enjoyed the Jason Bourne series, both in book and film, you may well like I Am Pilgrim too, especially when it comes to the outstanding yet vulnerable male protagonist. My favourite elements of the book include Pilgrim's search for normality in Paris, his writing as a way to find closure, and the comfort he finds in both written and spoken word.

The wisdom from a Buddhist monk that "if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go" unexpectedly affects the decisions of both Pilgrim and those he passes the phrase onto. Similarly, a reference to the Gospel of St Mark, chapter sixteen, verse six, provides strength when it is most needed. Pilgrim writes, "even if you are not a believer, the words are still very beautiful", and I agree wholeheartedly with this as an agnostic myself.

"He is risen" can tell us much about human strength, and I'm so glad Terry Hayes realised how appropriate it was to his novel.

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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

How Much Do You Really Remember About The Books You've Read?

I'll admit that when it comes to my reading, occasionally I focus on quantity rather than quality. In 2012 I read 93 books, which was, in hindsight, far too many. What was the name of the protagonist in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore? I haven't a clue.

It was by reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a superb book on memory, that I started properly thinking about this. How many books do I know really well?

I think a lot of us readers can relate to Foer when he writes:

One Hundred Years of Solitude: I remember magical realism and that I enjoyed it. But that's about it. I don't even reacall when I read it. About Wuthering Heights I remember exactly two things: that I read it in a high school English class and that there was a character named Heathcliff. I couldn't say whether I liked the book or not.

Joshua Foer on reading and forgetting

To counter the mindless binging of books, I think we need to not "read and read and read", but simply read. It's something I've become a lot better at remembering, but I know my manic reading tendencies will return (and probably soon).

Last year I ticked off a modest 59 books, and this year I've so far managed a meagre 34. I'm happy with that. I'd like to say that I've really mulled over The Secret History by Donna Tartt in all its intellectual, vicious glory, and enjoyed every mindful minute of Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm. And I definitely remember that the protagonist of The Goldfinch was called Theo, and that there were two other wonderful characters called Hobie and Pippa.

By not pushing ourselves to read great lists of Booker Prize winners in a single summer, we can perhaps read more into our books.

For me, I know that writing about my favourite books is a great help. It's also the perfect excuse (or incentive) to research a great book in more detail, and I think Michel de Montaigne would agree with me. As he writes in Of Books, one of his great essays,

To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I had read carefully a few years before and scribbled over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book (I mean of those that I intend to use only once) the time I finished reading it and the judgement I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it.

How do you try to remember the books you read? Do you annotate them and use lots of post-its (as I do), or do you keep a reading journal? Do you read archeologically around an author or topic? Or do you set aside time to reread your favourite novels?

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Friday, 1 August 2014

What Leo Tolstoy Can Teach Us About Overcoming Anxiety

Tolstoy at the time of writing War and
, 1868. Image source.
While on a trip to the Penza region in 1869 to look at some land he was interested in buying, Tolstoy stopped overnight at a hotel in the Russian town of Arzamas. Despite feeling 'perfectly well' and tired after travelling, at two o'clock in the morning Tolstoy was gripped by an intense fear of dying and suffered a full-blown panic attack.

Tolstoy's experience of anxiety

Fellow anxiety sufferers will be able to relate to Tolstoy's description of "despair, fear and terror, the like of which [you have] never experienced before". Tolstoy wrote to his wife about this "agonising feeling", and rightly concluded: "may God preserve anyone else from experiencing it".

This experience would shake his world and his writing, and Tolstoy would set about asking himself what art truly is. From this moment, we can wave goodbye to the playfulness of Natasha Rostov and the sublimity of that "infinite sky" above Andrey on the battlefield; two of my favourite passages in War and Peace.

However, I think that these two instances precisely encompass how we can escape anxiety and access a calmer state of mind.

By turning our attention to the world around us, we can often find meaning and bliss in the most chaotic and anxious of circumstances.

Overcoming anxiety with mindfulness

It seems that Tolstoy followed his own wisdom too. In Rosamund Barlett's brilliant biography of the author, she describes how while travelling through the dense forests of the Penza region, Tolstoy would enjoy looking up to the very tops of the tall pine trees above him. 

When considering Tolstoy looking up to the sky, contemplating something greater than himself, it's hard not to think back to Prince Andrei wounded on the battlefield:

Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing – that’s all there is. But there isn’t even that. There’s nothing but stillness and peace.
When did you last look up at the sky? Let's follow Tolstoy's advice and try to be more mindful. Image source.

There's also the moment when Pierre, imprisoned for alleged arson, feels intense awe at a glorious sunset, despite his cruel captivity (we can compare this to Viktor Frankl's experience in Auschwitz). Finally, when looking up at the comet of 1812, Pierre is overwhelmed by his own tiny place on earth:

Pierre's eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth...

For Tolstoy and many of his characters - especially those in War and Peace - overcoming an anxious moment may simply require looking up and getting out of our muddled headspace. By becoming mindful, we may well see our surroundings for the marvels they really are, and find some clarity and tranquility after panic and anxiety.

Tolstoy shows us that it's perfectly normal to fail and be anxious. Sometimes it's best, however, to just pause, look around and be mindful.

Bibliography and further reading:

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