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".

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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.

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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?

Books for Living: a reader's guide to life by Will Schwalbe is now available as hardback or on Kindle.

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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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