I've had trouble finding books that got me excited lately. I'm either looking for excuses or I've become a better reader because I'm struck more and more with thoughts like this didn't need to be so long, why is this so self-indulgent or why did they leave this whole part unexamined. The one benefit of this disappointment, however, is that I have become more able to appreciate truly good books, understanding now how special they are.

Of the selections below, I actually read two on my iPad (via the Kindle app, not iBooks which is garbage). It is an interesting and different experience. For one, you read the books much faster since it is easier to skim. I found ebooks to be better for current reading or fiction. The format is more conducive to books you probably won't need to refer to again and does not come close to challenging the myriad of reasons for owning a physical copy. My dream remains that printed books will come with a code giving the reader the ability to access a digital version of the book if they need to search it for something or want to click a footnote to investigate a footnote or source.

The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave by Publius Syrus
 One of the most profound observations about stoicism is that of its two greatest philosophers, one was an Emperor (Marcus) and the other was a slave (Epictetus). Syrus would belong in the latter category, winning freedom and fame like Epictetus through the strength of his wisdom and ideas. One of my favorites: that "avarice is the source of its owns sorrows." It explained what I tried to grapple with personally a few months back. Like the Stoic exercises most of the his meditations return to the same themes, trying to twist and turn over the matter until it's been seen from every angle. I bought the book after Nassim Taleb mentioned it in an interview and am glad I did. My (print) copy was actually one of the new books digitized Google Books from the University of Michigan Library. However, books like these are hard to read linearly, since the exhortations tend to blur together after too many in a row. I like to read the whole thing cover to cover, marking the ones that catch my immediate attention and then when I return back to them later they are like relay points into the text. It ought to take several tours before you've been able to get to all the pages with a fresh mind. Filed under "life". 

The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream by  Christina Lamb
I tracked this book down after seeing a picture of Shiwa House, an abandoned English country estate in the heart of Northern Africa on some website. It turns out that it was built between the two world wars by Sir Gordon Stewart Brown on a declining inheritance that went unusually far in the wreckage of British imperialism. This twenty-room mansion stood self-sufficient with modern amenities and its owner spent his days hunting rhinoceros and reading the classics in Latin from a fully stocked library. Of course this fantasy came at a great cost, he lost his family and most of his fortune in the process and when he died it was almost immediately left to be reclaimed by the continent. What I always take from these books is how we moralists sit back and judge the consequences of these driven or compelled men, tsking at Hearst for his preposterous visions of some West Coast Castle and yet we have no problem admiring or enjoying the results of their labors.The fact of the matter is that many great things come from their dispute against reality. Perhaps it is not my path, but I have some empathy for it.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin and Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
If there was one book I wish I could force into more people's hands it would be The Image by Daniel Boorstin. In 1960, before talk radio, before Fox News or blogs, he wrote a scathing indictment of the deliberately false reality molded around us by our media culture. Consider Tiger Woods announcing after he left sex rehab that he would be calling a press conference to take questions from the media - something better described as a staged media event to alert the world to a staged media spectacle in response to tabloid stories that threatened his image. And the public gladly played its role in the farce. Boorstin calls it "unreality" (I have some other examples here).

The spiritual sequel to The Image is Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wants us to realize that there is something inherently inferior about the information we consume through visual media. Forget television designed for entertainment - which is at least honest - and focus in something like a news segment. As far as its creators are concerned, the worst thing that it could possibly do is inspire or provoke you, two horrible emotions that risk you getting up and leaving your living room and missing the imminently scheduled set of commercials. The result is the unreality we find ourselves in, one where no one can recall the last time they actually DID anything with the information they were given from the television. You realize that the last thing we have to fear is a malicious Orwellian news industry, because what we have is so much worse: culture incentivized to be as shallow, fabricated and captivating as possible, at the expense of what is actually real or true or meaningful. 

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart
The best description of this book is one I saw in a review or blurb I saw a few years ago, which compared Peart's motorcycle journey through North America after the loss of his wife and daughter to Teddy Roosevelt's trip West - “Black care,” Roosevelt wrote, “rarely sites behind a rider whose pace is fast enough” - after the simultaneous death of his wife and of his mother. Peart, probably the greatest drummer who ever lived, wrote the books as a series of journals as he attempted to make sense of a life and career that collapsed in the span of 18 months. He rode from Montreal to Alaska, down and through the Southwest and then across into Mexico and into Belize - something like 50,000 miles in less than two years, nursing his 'wet baby soul' back to health. I've always been a fan of the album that came from this period (he eventually rejoined Rush who had disbanded in the wake of the tragedy) since I heard it in high school.

Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer
I think most people know they have a problem with how our food gets to us (if not concerns with whether it's ethical to eaten certain kinds of it at all). But we do our best to push it from the front of our minds - we know about but never watch those horrific slaughterhouse abuse videos, we roll up the window when we pass massive pig and cattle farms - because we'd rather not deal with consequences of examining those feelings. Foer's book on factory farming and the larger issue of eating meat took me almost a month to make sense of my choices after reading. When I finished thinking, I gave up eating factory-farmed meat entirely. The only meat I consume comes from Frank Reese's heritage turkeys and chickens (featured in the book) and Niman Ranch (you can also track down Niman's new farm, BN Ranch but I haven't yet). I think what I liked about Foer is his ability to articulate the nuance of an issue but still be blunt and honest enough to dismiss those details as irrelevant in the face of larger issues. To me, that issue is whether you can be aware and proud of the decisions you make about something like food or eating meat. And then it's important that you move on and address and improve another area of your life.

Some questions to keep in mind:
1) When you're watching television, ask yourself: Could I do anything this with this information?
2) Are the conveniences of factory farming really that important to you? Are you fine with the costs too?
3) How awesome is the song Tom Sawyer?

Like I've said before, I hope that you'll get around to reading whichever books catch your eye and that you'll learn as much as I did. Whether you buy them on Amazon today or six months from now makes no difference to me. You're welcome to email me questions or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of a good book on a related topic, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these books comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I'd never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. This means that I treat reading with a certain amount of respect. All I ask, if you decide to email me back, is that you're not just thinking aloud. Enjoy these books, treat your education like the job that it is, and let me know if you ever need anything.

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