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.
Scars and Stripes
Scars and Stripes: An Unapologetically American Story of Fighting the Taliban, UFC Warriors, and Myself by Tim Kennedy and Nick Palmisciano, 4/5
At some point (I don’t even remember when), I got it in my head that Tim Kennedy was kind of an obnoxious d-bag, so I had zero interest in reading what I was sure would be an obnoxious and terribly-written autobiography. I wouldn’t have even known it existed if my husband hadn’t listened to the audio book and then proceeded to tell me stories from it until I ordered it from the library just to get him to shut up.
I couldn’t put it down. In about one chapter, I went from “eh, it’s ok for what it is” to staying up late into the night trying to find a slightly boring spot to stop reading. It’s not great literature, but man, is it great stories!
Why I read it: a recommendation from my husband.
Solve for Happy
Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy by Mo Gawdat, 4/5
If I wasn’t absolutely, abjectly ready to hear someone else say what my husband has been telling me for years, then I probably would have hated this book for its many cliches, general cheesiness, and cringy clip art. Though a highly intelligent and successful businessman, Gawdat is rather a layman in terms of psychology and philosophy, so one might expect that his contribution to the well-worn topic of “happiness” would be in a uniquely analytical approach to existing research, rather than any foundational insights. I was very surprised to find that this was not the case. In fact, the much-advertised “happiness equation” and concept of “solving for happy” seemed under-developed and forgettable to me. What will stick with me for a long time and, in fact, motivated me to copy all those “cheesy cliches” into a Word document for later reference, was three concepts: 1. the natural, default human state is happiness, 2. unhappiness is generally rooted in thoughts about the past or the future, and 3. mental suffering is useless.
These ideas fly in the face of what have been, up until now, my beliefs that 1. happiness is an otherwise unattainable by-product of pursuing a passion in life, 2. controlling every aspect of my life will compensate for my uncontrollable thoughts (and their accompanying emotions), and 3. suffering is necessary to stimulate personal growth. Frankly, these beliefs have not worked out that well for me over the last three decades and recently having a child has intensified my desire to enjoy every moment and make peace with my own existence, instead of obsessing over what the “point” of it all is.
Though it did not come from any of the many decorated philosophers or psychologists whose work I have read, and it can feel over-simplified and unreasonably optimistic at times, Gawdat’s perspective brought me immediate relief and seems to be in line with the life experience I have accumulated. I don’t expect everything to be sunshine and roses from now on, but (or maybe, and) I’m excited to apply this new perspective to each moment as best I can.
Why I read it: my dad sent me a link to an interview with Mo Gawdat, but I don’t have the attention span to watch slow, unstructured conversations, so I opted to read his book instead.
Think and Grow Rich
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.
Scottish Castles: An Introduction to the Castles of Scotland by W. Douglas Simpson, 3/5
Little more than a glorified pamphlet, this small book still manages to address the major eras of Scottish castle-building between the 12th and 17th centuries, briefly addressing the historical contexts that affected changes in architectural styles. Starting with the simple motte and bailey structures of the 1100s, the reader encounters the stone towers and walled courtyards of the 1200s and the evolution of tower-houses between the 1300s and 1600s from simple rectangles to L-shapes and Z-shapes. There are a good number of black-and-white photos and floor plans, but pairing them with the relevant text requires a lot of flipping back and forth. Also, as might be expected in such a small book, many references go sadly un-illustrated and there is no glossary. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for the ideal book about castles!
Why I read it: a used-book-store find that caught my eye.
The Culture Code
The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 5/5
Impeccably organized around three main skills (1. Build Safety, 2. Share Vulnerability, and 3. Establish Purpose), this book examines some of the world’s highest-functioning groups in such varied fields as business, tech, the military, sport, comedy and medicine. Coyle achieves a beautiful balance of well-referenced information, firsthand observations, anecdotes, and suggestions for real-life applications. I was fascinated to see how similar a healthy culture is to a healthy family and recognized many of the ideas and values from my own experiences growing up in a large and loving family.
Why I read it: While writing my review of Peak and refreshing my memory on Coyle’s contribution to the same topic via The Talent Code, I was happy to discover he’d written this book more recently.
Experimenting with Babies
Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid by Shaun Gallagher, 5/5
This book is very good for what it is–a light-hearted and accessible collection of activities, based on scientific experiments, that highlight the nuances of a baby’s development. The presentation is not at all rigorous and might even uncharitably be considered “dumbed-down,” but does go well beyond the few common reflexes (e.g. rooting, Moro, stepping, etc.) with which parents might already be familiar. Personally, I do not feel motivated to actually perform any of the experiments with my own baby, but it was still fascinating to learn more about his fascinating progression from potato to person.
Why I read it: A friend lent it to me.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, 4/5
This book gave me a feeling of déjà vu since it is the third I’ve read on the same general topic, preceded by Coyle’s The Talent Code and Gladwell’s Outliers. On paper, Peak should have been my favorite of the three. Ericsson, a respected professor of psychology, is able to provide the academic backbone that was missing from Coyle’s otherwise very enjoyable take on the subject. And, as one of the researchers responsible for the original study that Gladwell later contorted into the “10,000-hour rule,” Ericsson is both qualified and motivated to debunk that incorrect (yet annoyingly memorable) interpretation of his work.
That said, I felt that Peak was rather a latecomer to the party and the authors’ efforts to transcend the genre of pop psychology relaxed in the book’s later chapters. Their painstaking attempt to distinguish between “deep practice” and mere “purposeful practice” felt contrived, and the concept of “mental representations,” so vital to Ericsson’s psychology-based perspective on the topic, was discussed in a consistently wishy-washy way. I couldn’t resist an eye roll upon encountering the section about London taxi drivers and their overdeveloped hippocampi, a study that has already been beaten to death (à la the Stanford Prison Experiment). Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I remember enjoying Coyle’s more biology-based perspective and discussion of the topic in terms of deep practice, ignition and master coaching in The Talent Code.
While it might not have lived up to my six-year-old memory of a similar book, Peak still has a lot to offer. I was very interested in the application of the science of expertise to the field of medicine, specifically surgery. No one wants their medical practitioner to be just “average,” but the old joke that goes “What do you call the medical student who graduated last in his class? … Doctor” is unsettlingly accurate. Ericsson poses a real “moneyball” moment for the medical industry by showing how studying the highest performing outliers and applying science-based teaching techniques can raise the success rates of “average” surgeons.
Why I read it: my brother piqued my interest by telling me interesting stories from it.