Books I Read This Month (May2022)

Atomic Habits – James Clear
How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery – Lawrence Leshan
Self-Intelligence: the New Science-Based Approach for Reaching Your True Potential – Jane Ransom
This Is Your Mind On Plants – Michael Pollan
The Act of Living: What the Great Psychologists Can Teach Us About Finding Fulfillment – Frank Tallis

You can tell from the reading list, there’s an obvious theme: self-help. When you’re surrounded by the worst people in the world, it helps to read about and study up on becoming a better person so you don’t start hating yourself, too.

I saw “Atomic Habits” on the WSJ bestseller list, and figured this was the self-help manual of the day. The writer is also a public speaker, making his money on the corporate speaker circuit, but also played minor league baseball before a crippling injury/disease threatened his life and motor skills, which he eventually overcame as well, and having a successful career. So he knows something about overcoming hardship. 

Clear breaks down habit formation into 4 different steps, like “make it attractive” or “make it easy”. Each chapter further delves into each step, and is full of little tips and tricks to help you implement new habits. He summarizes the benefits of ritualizing parts of our day, but he should’ve gone into the specific habits that are worth integrating into everyday routines. I guess, those are obvious, though (exercise, good hygiene, etc.) 

“Self-Intelligence” is a book length summary of every efficacious self-improvement method. Marshalling all the scientific evidence on the subject, Jane Ransom posits that by choosing our thoughts, actions, and experiences, we can boost our performance at work and optimize our physical and mental health. Besides for the usual suspects, Jane Ransom also covers sometimes neglected, yet effective, techniques, like visualization and quality sleep. My favorite chapter was on self-talk, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. How we see ourselves in the little movie playing in our heads everyday has a huge impact on our day-to-day behavior as well as on our self-esteem.

“The Act of Living” expands on that last point, and refers to Freud, Jung, and the rest of psychology field for advice on living a fulfilling, meaningful life. Besides a healthy self-narrative, psychology recommends that we talk about our inner lives out loud in order to gain a better sense of control over our lives. As Tallis makes clear, psychoanalysis doesnt make big promises, but it does provide a sensible framework for seeing the world, and can make small improvements that render life more tolerable.

All the significant thinkers in the field stress the importance of meaningful, intimate relationships with others. The need to connect can’t be satisfied digitally, there’s something primal about being in the presence of others physically, and having all of your senses engaged by the interaction. That’s why, even if you’re on suicide watch, too exhausted to do anything, jus talking to friends and family can buoy our moods and keep us grounded within external reality.

“How To Meditate” functions better as an apologia for meditation rather than a how-to guide. There are chapters explicating the numerous benefits, both physiological and psychological, that meditation has on the practitioner. Like going to the gym, these positive effects slowly accumulate over the course of months and years of daily practice. Regardless, after reading the tangible and intangible benefits presented, you’ll be inspired to begin a mediation routine of your own. Leshan also provides a half-dozen examples of structured and unstructured meditations along with detailed instructions for each. Personally, I like Paula Watkins guide better for delving into the nitty-gritty how-to of meditation but there’s enough here to get started.

“This a Is Your Mind On Plants” is the cleverly named collection of essays by renowned garden writer, Michael Pollan. These three essays–on opium, caffeine (tea/ coffee), and mescaline, respectively–examine the history of their usage, their status as licit and illicit drugs, and their present day role in our lives.

The first piece on opium was written during the late 90s documents the writer’s attempts at propagating poppy plants with the aim of later brewing poppy tea. Focussing on an effort by the DEA to quietly stamp out poppy cultivation for this purpose, and his concerns that he’ll get caught up in their investigation, the piece feels dated if only because it feels so incomplete. As he notes in his forward, little did he know at the time all of this was happening that pharmaceutical companies were reformulating the poppy’s opium into more potent and addictive painkillers, like oxycontin, that’d later lead to the greatest drug epidemic in the country’s history. 

The caffeine chapter is by far the most fascinating (I think it was even released separately as an audio book). Pollan explains an experiment he performs for the purpose of writing the essay–refraining from caffeine consumption, an avid coffee drinker. Noting the withdrawal symptoms, he’s also able to more fully appreciate its psychoactive effects as a stimulant, something which we as a society are blithely unaware of because of our addiction to, and reliance on, coffee.

Viewed as relatively innocuous today, coffee wasn’t always so uncontroversial. Following its introduction to Europe around the 1500s, coffee was initially outlawed and associated with radical politics, until the emerging industrial capitalism discovered it increased worker productivity, and thus, profits.

1 Comment

  1. Dot Says... says:

    Thanks for the reading list. I’m intrigued by a couple of the books. I had not heard of them before, now I intend to read them. Thanks for sharing.


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