Saturday, 27 December 2014

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Books That Kept Her Strong, Including John le Carré, Austen & WWI Poetry

BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs makes for intriguing listening. Each episode invites the chosen castaway (a celebrity or important figure of lesser or greater fame or virtue) to choose eight pieces of music, a book (in addition to the Bible - or religious text - and The Complete Works of Shakespeare) and a luxury item.

A favourite of mine is the interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, first broadcast on 27 January 2013, which is a rare personal interview with the Chairperson and General Secretary of the National League for Democracy in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi is an incredible figure of courage and an endless campaigner for democracy, and I've been previously inspired by her collective writings, Freedom From Fear. However, even the strongest of wills would by tested by facing almost 15 years of house arrest. To hear about the music and books that helped Aung San Suu Kyi to retain a degree of strength during this time is a great gift to us.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to give speech at her constituency Kawhmu township, Myanmar on 22 March 2012. Image by Htoo Tay Zar.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi's book for a desert island: the Abhidhamma


As her one book to enjoy as a castaway on Desert Island Discs, Aung San Suu Kyi chose the Buddhist Abhidhamma, a collection of core Buddhist texts. I'm fascinated by Buddhism, and I'm currently reading The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa.

The book is a great introduction to becoming a "warrior" of the mind, and comes with some great advice to apply to our own lives (on both good and bad days):

May we continue to open our hearts and minds, in order to work ceaselessly for the benefit of all beings.
May we go to the places that scare us.
May we lead the life of a warrior.

The Buddha preaching the Abhidhamma.

Elizabeth and Mr Darcy by Hugh Thomson, 1894

2. Fiction by and about inspiring people (alongside beautifully written books) 


In the Desert Island Discs recording, Aung San Suu Kyi added some further choices that are both brilliantly crafted and greatly inspiring. If we're looking for some day-to-day motivation, here are some superb recommendations to get us started. 

Why not re-read Austen's novels, get inspired by Gandhi's autobiography, or flick through the Selected Writings of Havel?

Of course I read a lot about people who were inspiring, people who could help me with my task... Gandhi, Nero, Václav Havel. At the same time, I would re-read Jane Austen and get a lot out of that, simply through the beauty of the language.

- Desert Island Discs, 27 January 2013

I'm a firm believer in the positive effect of inspiring books - see my list of some favourite novels here. I've also written about the anti-anxiety effects of beautifully written fiction.



3. John le Carré's novels


An unexpected yet brilliant choice from Aung San Suu Kyi is John le Carré's work, the author of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (also a major film). Can't we all relate to her desire for an escape from the real world, or rather "a journey into the wider world"?

I have to mention one of my fellow honorands at this time, because when I was under house arrest I was also helped by the books of John le Carré. They were an escape – I won’t call it an escape, they were a journey into the wider world. Not the wider world just of other countries, but of thoughts and ideas. And these were the journeys that made me feel that I was not really cut off from the rest of humankind. I was never alone, because there were many, many avenues to places far away from where I was.

- Oxford University Speech, 20 June 2012

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

4. Poetry of the First World War


I frequently write about my love for Edward Thomas's poetry, while I know that many of you also enjoy the work of Robert Frost and Wilfred Owen. Therefore, WWI poetry comes as another welcome choice from Suu Kyi.

The First World War represented a terrifying waste of youth and potential, a cruel squandering of the positive forces of our planet. The poetry of that era has a special significance for me because I first read it at a time when I was the same age as many of those young men who had to face the prospect of withering before they had barely blossomed.


- Nobel Lecture, Oslo, 16 June 2012

In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi has quoted "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seegar (1917):

I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
Men of U.S. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918


Are you inspired by the favourite books of great leaders, thinkers, and artists? Do share your favourites below in the comments. I hope to be sharing more insights into the reading lives of inspiring people every few weeks!


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