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.
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: 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.
Shakespeare’s Fingerprints by Michael Brame & Galina Popova, 1/5
This is one of the most ludicrous books I have ever read and I could not stop talking about it to my poor husband, who also had to listen to a soundtrack of shocked snorts, giggles, gasps and groans as each page revealed some new absurdity.
The authors disagree with the scholarly consensus that William Shakespeare was a common actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, instead believing that his name was used as a pseudonym by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The most convincing basis for this belief is a timeline of biographical events from de Vere’s life that seem to be referenced in Shakespeare’s plays and poems (assuming these works are semi-biographical, which the authors in no way prove).
Unfortunately, any reasonable and interesting points are obscured by inane literary analysis using criteria so broad that it soon loses all meaning. The authors start by claiming that Shakespeare’s use of certain common letters and combinations (e.g. o, vo, wo, vvo, eo, ver, fer, fair, etc.) should be interpreted as a purposeful play on the letters and sounds in de Vere’s name and title–a “fingerprint” clue to the author’s real identity. Not satisfied with co-opting such a large number of very common words to support their hypothesis, they then proceed to compare Shakespeare’s writing with other literary works of the time, identifying any similar metaphors, phrases, topics, rhyming word choices, poetic forms, even basic grammatical structure, as “proof” that de Vere was the real author. Ultimately, their tortured reasoning forces them to conclude that de Vere used no less than 37 pseudonyms (many representing real people who were alive at the time) and was single-handedly responsible for the development of 16th-century English literature.
Frustratingly, the authors focus on fluffing up ridiculous arguments with academic terminology in an effort to sound erudite, meanwhile studiously avoiding the performance of any real research that would prove or disprove their hypothesis. I really can’t emphasize enough how absolutely embarrassing and ridiculous the end result is. It’s difficult to write a review because the more detail I try to include, the more we fall down the rabbit hole of insanity. By keeping my analysis fairly short, I am not over-simplifying their arguments, but portraying them in a better light than they appear after closer examination. Still, I can’t resist giving two specific examples of what the amused reader will encounter. At one point the authors analyze the adjective “sweet” thus: “sweet ≡ sv veet ≡ seventeenth Vere” (99). Even the title Much Ado About Nothing is proof of Edward de Vere’s authorship in their eyes, since “Ad is most plausibly a play on Ed, the nickname of the genius lurking behind the Shakespeare pseudonym” (8). Insanity!
Oh, and if you are wondering, as I did, how not just one but TWO academics from the University of Washington could be behind this book, it might help clear things up to know that they were married at the time…
Why I read it: I bought it greatly discounted at a used bookstore many years ago.
What to Expect the Second Year
What to Expect the Second Year: From 12 to 24 Months by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, 2/5
I found this book to be good primarily for two things: 1. confirming that all the craziness is normal and 2. making me thankful for all the craziness that we haven’t encountered. That said, I was disappointed by the same issues that bothered me in the previous book–namely, a laughably paranoid thoroughness that would be unhealthy in practice (if even attainable at all), and a patronizingly dismissive approach to non-mainstream points of view on controversial topics.
The sections on parenting and discipline were especially underwhelming, which was unfortunate because those are the topics about which I have the most burning questions. In effect, Murkoff associates all physical discipline with uncontrolled parental rage, providing as a substitute for this straw man a form of “discipline” that involves removing the source of temptation from the child or the child from the situation. This seems like a great strategy for handling delicate scenarios and other people’s children, but in my opinion, it is not discipline at all and fails to teach important lessons about self-control and boundaries that I know my almost-two-year-old is capable of learning.
Why I read it: It is very relevant to my life at the moment.
What If? 2
What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, 5/5
He’s done it again! This sequel to What If? is laugh-out-loud funny and I enjoyed how the author used longer-running jokes throughout, as well as short-answer segments to add some [admittedly unneeded] variety.
Why I read it: I’m a fan of the author and his webcomic, xkcd.
Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish, 2/5
From a literary perspective, it’s frankly shocking that something so closely resembling a shared Google Doc rough draft somehow survived the publishing process and exists in book form. Unpolished, unfocused, and overflowing with “cringe,” this book waffles between authors’ perspectives just like it waffles between travelogue, memoir, history and reality TV pitch. There were a few humorous moments and interesting historical facts, but I don’t think it has much to offer anyone outside of its target audience–Heughligans and fans of Outlander. Perhaps surprisingly, given my opinion of the book, I did enjoy its associated TV show, Men in Kilts.
Why I read it: my mother-in-law generously lent me her brand new copy while we were on a hunting trip.
The Complete Morgan Horse
The Complete Morgan Horse by Jeanne Mellin, with illustrations by the author, 3/5
This 1986 compilation of two earlier books definitely shows its age but still retains some value as a collection of vintage Morgan photos, excellent artwork by the author, and a fairly detailed history of the breed. Mellin is a better artist than writer, and her prose tends to be a bit dry and repetitive, with a slightly patronizing tone. However, I was still fascinated to learn about the roots of this uniquely American horse breed and its influence on the American Saddlebred and the Standardbred.
Why I read it: I remember coveting this book when I checked it out of the library as a kid, and it finally dawned on me that I’m a grown-up now and can just buy a copy if I want.
Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery
Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery by Anna Laurent, 5/5
I borrowed this book from the library just to flip through the pictures, but it turned out to be an unexpectedly delightful read. The text perfectly balances with the images, providing just enough additional information to capture the reader’s interest and encourage a more in-depth examination of the many botanical wall-charts it features.
Why I read it: a brief intention to create my own botanical art lead me to order all related books from the library (there weren’t many).
What to Expect the First Year
What to Expect the First Year by Heidi Murkoff, 3/5
My husband and I were fortunate enough to have the world’s most chill baby, so I didn’t bother reading most of this book until we were halfway through year two of parenthood. Though raising our little guy has definitely become more challenging as he matures, the first twelve months were relatively straightforward; most issues that came up were easily addressed by a quick internet search, knowledgeable friends and family, or at medical check-ups. I didn’t feel the anxious anticipation, curiosity, and solitariness of first-time pregnancy that made What to Expect When You’re Expecting so comforting and helpful. For me, this book occupies a weirdly unhelpful middle ground, at times too hyper-focused to be practical or too general to be a reliable source for researching complex issues (especially controversial ones like vaccinations or discipline).
Why I read it: a friend and parent of two young children recommended it very highly.