Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, 2/5
Just from the title and short author bio on the cover flap, I expected this book to be pure baloney, but I never expected to encounter such a bizarre combination of sound psychological principles, medieval science, “New Thought” spirituality, and grandiose (though entirely unsubstantiated) personal anecdotes.
First, the bad: Napoleon Hill was undoubtedly a committed conman and lifelong liar. Even if you don’t believe all of the unsavory claims in Matt Novak’s extensive exposé of Hill’s life (warning: it’s an almost 20,000-word monster of an article that will suck you in from beginning to end), you would have to be very credulous indeed not to spot numerous red flags that indicate the questionable character, yet unquestionable audacity, of Napoleon Hill. His main claim to credibility hinges on close personal association with an impudent list of famous, well-respected figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and multiple U.S. presidents. Unfortunately, all detailed records of these relationships were allegedly destroyed in a fire (eye roll) and Hill was wise enough to save his stories until the people in question were dead and thus unable to contradict his incredible claims. Even the tale he tells in Think and Grow Rich of his own son, born without ears but allegedly made to hear by the single-minded positivity that is a central tenet of the book, is at complete odds with a later article in which he credits chiropractics alone as the miraculous cure.
Despite the author’s personal shortcomings, this book is strangely motivating and encourages many proven strategies for success, such as goal-setting, visualization, positive thinking, forming good habits, and collaboration. If you can get past the mysticism and pseudoscience, there are some good things to be gleaned. For example, while I don’t agree with the extent to which Hill credits misfortune to negative thinking, I did feel challenged to reconsider the effect that negative thoughts might have on my life. For some reason, I can easily see the benefit of positive thinking, but view negativity as somehow neutral, which is clearly not the case.
Why I read it: Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rafael Lovato Jr. mentioned it in an interview.
Dead of Winter by Christopher Hale, 2/5
A mediocre murder mystery with vintage charm. Its main assets are its worn, vintage hardcover, old book smell, and browned pages with uneven edges. The author has faded into deserved obscurity, but the one fact about him I did manage to find was interesting: Christopher Hale was actually a woman with the imposing name of Francis Moyer Ross Stevens!
Why I read it: probably a thrift store find. I know most people nowadays see little value beyond the purely decorative in this type of vintage hardback, but I think it deserves to serve its original, more noble function: to be read.
The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin, 2/5
The author is a passionate advocate of communal family sleeping arrangements but writes in the simplistic style of a college research paper and relies too heavily on anecdotes. Before the topic of bed-sharing was even on my radar, I had already been warned against it by a friend whose eight-year-old was still not comfortable sleeping alone. Since opinions obviously vary, I wish this book had presented a more scholarly approach to the topic. Despite its shortcomings, it did provide an interesting point of view that encourages an open-minded approach to what should be a very personal and judgement-free lifestyle choice.
Why I read it: I’m expecting my first baby, so a friend gave it to me along with a couple books on childbirth.
How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Patricia Love, Ed.D., and Steven Stosny, Ph.D., 2/5
Perhaps I’m just cynical, but I feel this book’s title may as well be How to Improve Your Marriage by Reading About It. Yes, the book presents some interesting psychological concepts, focusing mainly on how men’s vulnerability to feelings of shame and women’s vulnerability to fear can result in a sense of disconnection not reparable by verbal communication. Unfortunately, you have to take the authors’ word for even the most outlandish-sounding statements, since they provide no footnotes or references. This lack of academic documentation seriously undermines the book’s credibility, in my opinion, and gives a strangely pop-psych flavor to an unpopular message of resolute self-improvement and one-sided commitment to acts of connection. While I respect and agree with the authors’ encouragement to generally be an emotionally intelligent human being and not a shitty, selfish one, their “practical” advice seems laughably out of touch with reality. I honestly can’t see the “Power Love Formula” saving any relationships, but I guess what do I know since I’m lucky enough to be almost four years into a relationship with an amazing, sensitive man who is secure and loving enough to demand we talk things out even when I’d rather sulk in silence. In terms of practical relationship advice that resonates with what I’ve observed and experienced, I find The Five Love Languages to be much more relevant and helpful.
Why I read it: it resonated with my dad but not my mom, so I was curious.
No Holds Barred: The Complete History of Mixed Martial Arts in America by Clyde Gentry III, 2/5
Relentlessly packed with names, dates, dry facts and endless acronyms, this book is about as appealing to read as the world’s longest Wikipedia article (a comparison that could be considered a compliment if you account for the fact that it was written before Wikipedia even existed). The author has performed an impressive amount of research, including a jaw-dropping 125 interviews, but unfortunately seems completely incapable of telling a story, even when equipped with firsthand knowledge of the dramatic events and larger-than-life personas associated with the history of MMA. His blow-by-blow descriptions of classic fights are excruciatingly boring and he somehow sucks all the life out of even the most amusing or astonishing anecdotes. Adding to the faults of the original edition is a half-assed update written 10 years later that sees the clumsy addition of multiple-page “sidebars” (literally marked with bars) that completely disrupt the text’s already inadequate narrative flow, two off-focus chapters tacked onto the end, and multiple references to himself awkwardly as “this author” that made me grind my teeth every time they assaulted my eyes. In the preface, the author mentions that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that “never happened” and, after reading it, there is no question why.
Why I read it: A gift from my dad, accompanied with the warning “it will probably be terrible.”
Pose! 1,000 Poses for Photographers and Models by Mehmet Eygi, 2/5
I like the basic layout of this book, which features one pose per page, each accompanied by a short summary, tips and three variations. Most of the poses seem to exist on a scale of somewhat to extremely cliched but presumably that is practically the point of a reference book like this. It is also understandable that many of the photos would feel lifeless and contrived, since they necessarily feature the same models and backdrops over and over again. Less forgivable are the extremely repetitive “tips” which add little additional value to the images, and the inclusion of many mediocre and a few absolutely cringe-worthy pose variations that made me question the author’s taste and expertise altogether.
My confidence in the author was further eroded by his brief “key lessons,” which did not display a nuanced or insightful perspective, but repetitively recommended a contrived and inorganic approach to photography at odds with common sense, psychology and my observation of other methods. What kind of photographer broadly advises others to methodically exhaust the possibilities of every single pose and variation before relentlessly moving on to the next? I was curious, so I visited Mehmet Eygi’s website (which was mentioned in two places in this book) and Facebook page. Surprisingly, neither features any of his photography or even mentions his name: they represent his comp card printing/design business. His Instagram page, where he identifies only as “Entrepreneur & Author,” is certainly no convincing testament to his photographic expertise either, displaying only a few generic pictures. In fact, I could find no other website, portfolio, resume or examples of his work not associated with this particular book, which seems very strange. Though Pose! does technically fulfill the promise of its title, I feel that it attempted to accomplish more and failed.
Why I read it: I’m trying to improve my photography and ordered every book on posing my library had.
The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry, 2/5
Like other Russian novels I’ve read, this one contains a dizzying array of characters–41 to be exact, according to its “Key to Principal Characters.” This unwieldy list appears at the beginning of the book and is much less helpful than you might expect since it is organized by last name. Once you’ve scanned from “Astakhov, Stepan” to “Zykov, Prokhor,” you’ve likely either forgotten who you were searching for altogether, or why you were interested in the first place. Add to that a writing style that jerks from unrelatable dialogue, to flowery descriptions of scenery, to endless, dry accounts of military movements associated with the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, and it makes for a very tedious reading experience indeed.
Fortunately, the drama heightened as the story progressed and I felt more invested in the characters and their experiences during the last 400 pages than the first 400. Judging by this trend, I can only assume that if I’d known beforehand that this novel forms the second half of a four-volume work (preceded by And Quiet Flows the Don) and read these books in order, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It was very interesting to learn about the Russian Civil War from an “inside” point of view, though it is difficult to know to what extent personal bias and political constraints affected the author’s depiction of historical events. I perceived a clear anti-Communist perspective throughout and the author was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, but the novel is considered a work of socialist realism and won a Stalin Prize, which seems very contradictory. If anyone can explain this to me, I’d appreciate it!
Why I read it: This copy belonged to my grandfather and has been on the shelf for years. Since I’m trying to read through all my old books, it seemed like a satisfying one to accomplish.
Castles: Their Construction and History by Sidney Toy, 2/5
Never has a book more sadly lacked a glossary! In retrospect, I should have created one of my own as I encountered endless, undefined technical terms like “barbican,” “corbel,” and “machicolation.” Because the author is very good at describing castles in painstaking detail and creating architectural drawings, this book has historical value as a record of the condition of various castles at the time of the author’s visits (pre-1939). Unfortunately, however, Sidney Toy is more focused on presenting data than interpreting it, so there is very little narrative flow or sense of the bigger picture as far as castles’ construction and history in general is concerned.
Why I read it: With several castles on the itinerary for a recent trip to Ireland, I was hoping to gain some knowledge on the subject, but this book was disappointingly unhelpful.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, 2/5
Reading this philosophical novel was, for me, like trying to experience a song by simply reading the lyrics–I understood the words, but I couldn’t hear the “music.” I suspect this is due in part to my reflexive antipathy for the 1960s zeitgeist and a general shift away from academic thought in my life. However, I’d prefer to think that the fault is the author’s, for alternating arbitrarily-detailed descriptions of a motorcycle road trip with dry, preachy philosophical rants that fall into the trap described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
“…But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see (81).”
In an attempt to understand my negative experience with such a popular, respected book, I read a lot of user reviews afterwards and learned more about the author. I now know that the book is highly autobiographical and wonder if my dislike of it reflects a basic personal incompatibility with the author/narrator and a recognition of how his pursuit of personal catharsis might taint the intellectual integrity of his arguments. I didn’t feel any sort of sympathy, connection or respect for the main character, suspecting that I would dislike him if I met him in person, which is certainly not a great basis on which to approach a book. With this understanding, I might re-read it in a few years and see if I can get something more out of it than I did this time.
Why I read it: I was browsing Half Price Books for reading material for a trip to Scotland and recognized the title.
It by Stephen King, 2/5
Stephen King is more than a popular writer, he’s a respected one, so I was excited to read one of his most famous books despite hating the 2017 film it inspired. Initially, I was impressed by the length and density of the plot, which caused me to forget characters’ names and refer back to previous chapters with an urgency not felt since I read War and Peace. However, after a while all the details and increasingly gross events lost their novelty and the thread of the story felt more like a patchwork of cliches. That same scattered aesthetic and uneven tone is what put me off the 2017 film version, which felt like 2 hours and 15 minutes of movie trailers for every horror film made in the last 40 years. I didn’t really experience any feelings of “horror” until near the end of the book, when I encountered King’s casual description of ritual group sex between children. At that point, I lost respect for the author and will likely not read anything else by him.
Why I read it: I was looking for something entertaining to read on the plane during our Scotland trip and while browsing in Half Price Books, realized I’d never read anything by Stephen King before.