The Purpose Driven Life

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, 1/5

Reading this, one could be forgiven for mistaking Christianity for a pyramid scheme and this book for its investment pitch.

Why I read it (or at least, the first 84 pages): it was included in a bunch of books passed along to me by a friend. I remembered it being really popular for a while, so thought I’d check it out.


Literary Lapses

Literary Lapses by Stephen B. Leacock, 3/5

A collection of humorous essays that have stood up quite well to the passage of over 100 years’ time.

Why I read it: I’ve had a free version of this bookmarked on Wikisource for so long that I can’t remember how I first heard of it. While tidying up my bookmarks, I decided to just buy a cheap copy of the book, since I hate reading ebooks.

Hand-Taming Wild Birds At the Feeder

Hand-Taming Wild Birds At the Feeder by Alfred G. Martin, with photographs and drawings by the Author, 5/5

I bought this book for the charming naivete of its cover and topic, but soon became fully invested in all the feathered characters featured inside. The author provides helpful, if purely anecdotal, advice about diet preferences and taming techniques for specific species, in addition to many touching stories about birds he has known.

Why I read it: a thrift store find.


Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, 5/5

On good days, I appreciate the diverse array of skills and experiences that make me who I am. Not yet 40 years old, I can make a credible case for claiming the informal titles of musician, intellectual, artist, athlete, teacher, and photographer. Many days, though, I struggle with feeling like a failure for never having pursued a “proper” career (and the money that comes with one) and so far not finding that one big, important thing I am supposed to be doing with my life.

If I’d read this book earlier, I could have avoided some of those bad days. Epstein blows apart the notion that choosing a career path as early as possible and pursuing it single-mindedly in ever-increasing depth, is the only road to success. Instead, he makes a convincing argument for the value of developing a broad base of interests and experiences, while unashamedly searching for pursuits with high “match quality” to yourself (instead of making a virtue of never quitting). The time this takes need not be wasted, since the most innovative contributions tend to come from people making connections between superficially disparate experiences and ideas, not from those who have specialized the most in any given field.

Life has not been as linear and predictable as I expected; in this book I was comforted to see a reflection of that experience. I learned that, contrary to the claims of pop psychology, personalities and even core values can change over time. That it is ok not to jump on the academic bandwagon of learning more and more about less and less. That continuing to follow my curiosity will provide the best chance of encountering my life’s purpose. And that I shouldn’t undervalue (or under-utilize) the skills and experiences I accumulate along the way just because they weren’t all acquired on a traditional timeline.

Why I read it: I think it was mentioned in Steven Kotler’s The Art of Impossible.

The Ultimate Gift

The Ultimate Gift: A Novel by Jim Stovall, 1/5

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. Preachy, predictable, and poorly written, this novel is pretty much rock bottom in terms of literary quality.

Why I read it: trying to stay open-minded and this was passed along in a box of random books from a friend.

Irma Voth

Irma Voth: A Novel by Miriam Toews, 5/5

This is the third Toews novel I have read and I continue to be baffled by her genius. I simply don’t understand how it’s possible to write something so beautiful, unexpected, unconventional, funny and touching, on any subject, much less the story of how an independent film crew provides the catalyst for an excommunicated Mennonite girl in Mexico to find her own path to freedom and meaning.

Why I read it: Trying to see if Miriam Toews can write anything I don’t like. So far, the answer is an emphatic “no.”

Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., 5/5

Life-changing, thought-provoking, fascinating, insightful, convicting–it’s hard to write a review of this book that doesn’t sound super clichéd. Starting with a chillingly relatable description of “learned helplessness,” Seligman then explores the characteristics of pessimistic vs optimistic interpretations of events, makes a compelling (but not naive or condescending) case for optimism and provides a simple approach for changing pessimistic thinking patterns.

Usually, I would try to summarize an impactful point or two for future recollection, but it’s difficult, in this case, because there was so much helpful info that I feel like it would be more useful to simply re-read the book if my memory fades. Also, I don’t want my own summary of the concepts to taint their potential novelty for other readers.

Now, for the answer to the million-dollar question: yes, I am a moderate pessimist (but also, triumphantly, more of a realist than optimists are).

Why I read it: I was intrigued by Stephen Kotler’s mention of it in his book The Art of Impossible.

Descent Into Hell

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams, 2/5

I’m not going to lie: I had absolutely no idea what the heck was going on for large portions of this novel and ran immediately to Google after finishing it to see what overarching themes I was too oblivious to comprehend. I guess it says something that the most helpful-looking analyses were hidden behind academic paywalls…

Undoubtedly, Williams had a more coherent vision than what he communicates through the overlapping stories of a saintly poet, an orphan haunted by her doppelgänger, the ghost of a past suicide, and a historian who creates a succubus from pure ego, among others. In retrospect, it is surprising that a novel with so many interesting characters could have so little plot and so many tedious passages of incomprehensible spiritual imagery. There are several places in which Williams purposefully disintegrates the English language in what I can only guess is an approximation of what having a stroke would feel like.

All in all, not my favorite reading experience, though with themes like art, sacrificial love, death, and the sin of self-absorption, I can understand how it might resonate better with other people or at another time.

Why I read it: the last of Williams’ seven “novels of the supernatural” I had left, since starting with All Hallows’ Eve.

The Art of Impossible

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler, 4/5

The author believes that the average person can achieve groundbreaking results by finding and fulfilling their life passion, a process that he attempts to reduce into a series of replicable steps through analysis of the “flow” state, the characteristics of high achievers (in whose company he firmly places himself, with less-than-convincing self-deprecation), and grossly over-simplified neuroscience.

Ironically, this book both poses and fails its own test. Kotler attempts the impossible and succeeds in writing a book that is slightly unlikable, painfully over-systematized, and, crucially, ascribes prescriptive value to what I strongly suspect are merely descriptive (if well-researched and insightful) observations. This last failing is a pervasive one in the self-help genre and, if the author had promised less, it would be easier to focus instead on the book’s many positive aspects.

While I strongly doubt that one could make long-lasting and meaningful life changes merely from following the steps in this book, it does provide some helpful ideas to fine-tune and recognize good character qualities and habits that already exist and to understand a little of the brain chemistry behind concepts like motivation, creativity, and fear.

Why I read it: a recommendation from a gym friend.

Mind Gym

Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack with David Casstevens, 1/5

Determined to develop a healthier mental approach to martial arts competition, I started this book with an optimistic attitude and pencil in hand, committed to completing every exercise and buying into the inevitable inspirational cliché or few. How unprepared I was for the relentless barrage of banalities I would encounter! Every exercise (and they were exceptionally few) was eye-rollingly familiar and the text was a hodgepodge of quotes and borrowed anecdotes that descended into the utter madness that can be found on page 198…

So what happens on page 198? Well, firstly, the author states that “His [Kurt Warner’s] bags-to-riches story is as inspiring as the song I play for athletes at the end of every training session. The song, by Mariah Carey, is titled Hero.” … Let’s take a moment to process that statement. A legitimate counselor of sports psychology habitually inflicts a Mariah Carey song on his clients for its raw motivational power? Really? Every training session? That song? Do they sit there with eyes closed for the full 4 minutes, absorbing all that sweet 1990s inspiration, or does it play on his phone as a sort of alarm to mark the end of a session, or is it background music for a hasty exit? The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. And the less sense it makes, the more it starts to throw into doubt literally everything else the author has to offer.

Just two sentences later, the unfortunate reader encounters this clunker of a paragraph: “Competitive sports can bring out the best in people. Instead of playing small, they overcome their self-doubts and fears. They let their light shine. They find courage, which is the opposite of discourage, and tap into their reservoir of potential. Reflect a moment.” The author means for us to reflect on moments of personal heroism, but instead, let’s focus on the much more interesting question of how the phrase “courage, which is the opposite of discourage” made it into print.

By the end of this book, I had lost so much faith in author Gary Mack that I became curious about his academic qualifications (conspicuously absent from the author bio). From his obituary, I learned that he did earn a Masters of Counseling Psychology, but what I find far more impressive is that he built a credible career in that field without have a single original thought! Perhaps it is a common failing, though. The next sports psychology book in my to-read pile (Champion’s Mind) was written by a PhD, yet peeking out from under the dust jacket flap was a note from a fellow, disillusioned library user: “Terrible–a bunch of slogans strung together by poor writing. Skip this.” Thank you, kind stranger. I shall.

Why I read it: lent to me by a gym friend.