Sunday, 25 January 2015

Amusing books and blazing fires: Sydney Smith's 20 antidotes to depression and low spirits

One of my favourite lists in Shaun Usher's brilliant Lists of Note is that of essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith. Sent to Lady Georgiana Morpeth in February 1820, Smith listed twenty pieces of advice to help his good friend overcome a bout of depression.

Sydney Smith, wit and provider of good
Upon considering the advice listed (which includes feel-good fiction, blazing fires, and not seeing further than dinner time - my favourite), Smith clearly had a knack for cheering up a friend, and his advice hasn't lost much value since.

The letter starts as so,

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820
Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

Not turning a blind eye to depression - we're off to a good start. Sydney then goes on to share his twenty pieces of advice for Georgiana, creating a trove of useful advice that is easily better than most self-help available today.

Sydney's twenty pieces of advice for "low spirits":

1st. Live as well as you dare.

2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd. Amusing books.

4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.

5th. Be as busy as you can.

6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.

7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for
dignified concealment.

9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th. Don't expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.

12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th. Keep good blazing fires.

19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

A special edition of Lists of Note,
published on
To further my fondness for Sydney Smith, he also wrote beautifully about the virtues of tea and coffee in his memoirs (1855):

"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? how did it exist? I am glad I was not born -before tea. I can drink any quantity when I have not tasted wine; otherwise I am haunted by blue-devils by day, and dragons by night. If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee. Sir James Mackintosh used to say, he believed the difference between one man and another was produced by the quantity of coffee he drank." (A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. p. 436)

Back to his list. Like so much else in the anthology, it is superbly displayed, uplifting to read (and re-read), and surprisingly applicable to modern life.

If you have the wonderful Lists of Note collection, be sure to find a Post-it note to mark the page (it's List 079).

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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Find meaningful work & nurture creativity with the 99U book series

One of my best-loved non-fiction books is The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp: an inspiring mine of creative wisdom that can apply to all manner of projects, professions, and plans.

I included this book in my list of books for bookworms to treasure in their libraries, and I've also delved a little deeper into the concept of "reading archeologically" that's explored in the book.

I'm constantly on the search for books that provide a similar level of creative motivation, and the closest I've found are the three books in the 99U series.

A beautiful design with even better content: Maximise Your Potential, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. Image credit: 99u.

Jocelyn K. Glei, editor-in-chief and director, leads the 99U in its mission to provide the "missing curriculum" on making ideas happen: from that initial burst of creativity, to getting it down in paper, to getting your ideas heard. Glei oversees the 99U website, and she's edited the book series that includes Manage Your Day-to-DayMaximise Your Potential, and Make Your Mark.

The books are insightful, beautifully-designed, and provide a reading experience that goes beyond looking at the 99U website (which is brilliant). If you enjoy investigating creativity and new ways to innovate your work and thinking, give these a go.

To achieve your best work: Manage Your Day-to-Day

I first read Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind last spring, during lambing time on my family's farm, and loved it. Read this one if you'd like to adapt your mindset to maximise creative thinking and day-to-day innovation in your work and projects.

This book encourages: "Stop doing busywork. Start doing your best work". Some of the talented contributors with lots of wisdom to share include Leo Babauta, Lori Deschene, Seth Godin and Gretchen Rubin.

The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off. - Mark McGuinness

To be bold and take risks: Maximise Your Potential

Next up is Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career. This book teaches us that, "success isn't about being the best. It's about always getting better", and focuses on stepping outside our comfort zones, building new skills, and tapping into true potential by taking risks and acting boldly.

This book is a good place to start if you feel that there's something holding you back from creativity. Read it and learn from the great minds of Joshua Foer, Cal Newport (who played a leading role in my education hacking article), and Behance founder and CEO Scott Belsky amongst others.

When we are working with intention, we toil away endlessly—often through the wee hours of the morning—on projects we care about deeply. Whether it’s building an intricate model of an ancient ship, writing a song, or mapping out an idea for your first business, you do it out of genuine interest and love. If you can make “work with intention” the center of your efforts, you’re more likely to make an impact on what matters most to you. - Scott Belsky

To create a business with impact: Make Your Mark

The most recent book is Make Your Mark: The Creative's Guide to Building a Business with Impact, which is much more business-orientated than the other two books. The message on achieving impact through entrepreneurship and innovation is a brilliant one, but if - for now - you're looking to build creativity, focus, and a positive routine in your projects and day-to-day thinking, I'd recommend starting with the other two books.

After reading Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximise Your Potential, you might even be inspired to build your own business: keep an open mind. This book - "a business book for makers, not managers" - has some one-off advice from the bright minds behind Google X and Facebook, amongst other leading companies and startups.

Artist, architect, and activist Maya Lin’s purpose shows up not only in what she makes but also in what she chooses not to make. She spends her time focused solely on the projects and causes that allow her to grow and contribute. She says “no” to the rest. Restraint and discipline come to those who are clear about their purpose in life.

Are you looking to build your creativity this year, or are you planning to dedicate more of your free time to creating, building, or learning new skills? If you are, this book series is a superb starting point to get inspiration flowing and the first ideas on the drawing board.

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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Levin on The Joy of Retreating into Nature (Reasons to Read Anna Karenina, Part II)

I wrote last month about "literary retreats", or novels about retreating into relaxing and recuperative settings that can't help but calm us too.

Re-reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy has given me an interesting take on this - while the novel is often depicted as a romance or romantic tragedy (a little unfairly), there are essentially two sides to the story. There's the better known affair of Anna and Count Vronksy, but there's also the pure and uplifting love of Kitty and Levin. It's this second partnership of Anna Karenina that becomes an ideal, or model of perfection, for so many readers.

I think that a large part of this model of perfection is Levin's retreat into country life, or nature. We may aspire to roam the fields as he does, turn the hay with him in summer, and observe the seasons change. Good food, time for reading, and time spent outdoors is what his time is dedicated to.

At one stage of the novel Stepan Arkadych asks him, "Are you always in the country?" and, "I suppose it’s dull in winter?" to which Levin responds, ‘It’s not dull if you have things to do, and being on your own isn’t dull". A nice summary, I'd say.

Here are some of the lessons that Levin gives us about the joy of escaping into nature, with quotes sourced from Rosamund Bartlett's exciting new translation of the novel.

What we can learn from Levin's retreat into nature

1. Levin spends time with his dog, Laska, and learns from her state of bliss

And as a sign that everything was now all right in the world, she opened her mouth a fraction, and after arranging her sticky lips better around her old teeth, smacked them and settled down into a state of blissful rest. Levin watched these last movements of hers closely. ‘I’m just the same!’ he said to himself; ‘Just the same! Never mind... All is well.’

2. He remains mindful and notices the changes in the seasons

Meanwhile spring arrived—a beautiful, kind-hearted spring, without spring’s usual promises and deceptions, and one of those rare springs which plants, animals, and people rejoice in together. This beautiful spring energized Levin even more, and hardened his resolve to make a complete break with the past...

3. Levin retains a full life, despite, or because of, his solitude

In spite of his solitude, or because of it, his life was extremely full, and it was only occasionally that he experienced an unsatisfied desire to communicate the ideas wandering round his head to someone other than Agafya Mikhailovna, although he often ended up discussing physics, agricultural theory, and especially philosophy with her; philosophy was Agafya Mikhailovna’s favourite subject.
Spring is the season for plans and proposals.  

4. He keeps his eyes open to the beauty around him, even when things are going badly

Invisible larks burst into song above the velvety green shoots and the ice-covered stubble, peewits sent up plaintive calls over wetlands and marshes still sodden with murky, stagnant water, and up on high cranes and geese flew past with their spring cackle. 

5. Spending time outside is his priority

If Levin was happy in the cattle-pens and in the farmyard, he became happier still in the open country. Swaying rhythmically along with the ambling pace of his trusty little horse, drinking in the warm, fresh scent of the snow and air as he rode through the wood, over soft, fast disappearing snow that was covered with tracks, he rejoiced in every one of his trees, with their swelling buds and the moss reviving on their bark.

6. He stays in the moment and cultivates gratitude, rather than grieving over loss

"You’re a lucky man. You’ve got everything you love. You love  horses—you’ve got them; dogs—got them; shooting—got that; farming—got that.’ ‘Maybe it’s because I enjoy what I have, and don’t grieve over what I don’t have,’ said Levin, remembering Kitty.

Have you read Anna Karenina and felt calmer after reading Tolstoy's descriptions of nature?

Perhaps you've read another novel that's helped you to escape into nature in order to reduce anxiety. Some of my favourites are listed on LitTherapy, my other website, and include The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Starting 2015 with a Recap of 2014 on Tolstoy Therapy: 10 Favourite Articles & 10 Best Books

So 2014 has come to a close, and it was a good one. Going over past successes may have just as much of a positive effect on us as forming resolutions, I think, so here are a few highlights of the year.

Here's to another year of great books being published, prioritised reading time, and recommending lots of books to our loved ones!

The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, c. 1905. 

My 10 favourite articles of 2014 on Tolstoy Therapy

1. 15 Mood-Boosting and Feel-Good Books for Summer 2014 - the most popular article on the website this year (this is so encouraging, let's read lots more feel-good fiction next year!)

2. Tips for Reading War and Peace and Getting Started with Leo Tolstoy - the result of the wonderful emails I receive about getting started with Tolstoy.

3. Retreating into a Book for Bibliotherapy: 8 of the Best Retreats in Fiction - One of the reasons I try to read so much is that it's like a sanctuary for me. Reading about characters undergoing retreats adds another (very welcome) dimension to this experience.

4. A Year Abroad in Books (Alongside Homesickness and Coming Home) - It feels like so long ago that I was living in Barcelona. Here's a list of the books I read to deal with homesickness.

5. Books or Marriage? The Dilemma of Charles Darwin in 1838 - Finding interesting snippets to share with you is one of the most enjoyable aspects of running this blog. Here's an intriguing insight into Darwin's thought processes and marriage.

6. Books Can Heal: Bibliotherapy and the Effect of Reading on the Brain - I know that reading fiction has a positive effect on so many people. Here's some science to start explaining why.

7. 12 Life Lessons to Gain from Reading Leo Tolstoy - Limiting this list to twelve reasons wasn't easy, but it was a lot of fun.

8. Coffee and Literature: Readers Who Love It, Writers Who Need It - Because coffee is something worth celebrating, especially when accompanied by great books.

9. Tolstoy on the Importance of Books and Literacy in Prisons - An article that shows that Tolstoy is still relevant, especially in a society where books are - unbelievably - still limited to some.

10. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Books That Kept Her Strong, Including John le Carré, Austen, and WWI Poetry - A recent article about strength, poetry, and great fiction that was so rewarding to compile.

Also, 5 Reasons Why Twentysomething Should Read Tolstoy - my article for Huffington Post Books that reached 32,000 Facebook likes (thank you all!)

My 10 favourite books read in 2014

1. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden (2014). Here's my own choice.

2. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009). A novel about transforming ourselves that's inspired by Austen.

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013). A superb exploration of the beauty of art, music, and life.

4. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (2012). A fascinating book that gets us questioning how much we remember about the books we read.

5. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013). A unique tale of family life and its challenges.

6. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2014). The best thriller I've ever read, if not one of the best books.

7. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1939). A book to accompany us through life.

8. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013). A feel-good book to get your life back on track.

9. Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss (2012). A stunning non-fiction account of a year spent in Iceland, easily my favourite place in the world.

10. The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan (2014). A book that inspires great hope and the courage to be creative.

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