Book recommendation(s) for the newish year

About a year ago, I forced myself to start reading non-fiction. My nightstand used to be piled high with my current fiction or history selections. I eschewed anything that smelled remotely of “self-help”. Having grown up watching Stuart Smalley on SNL, this genre felt so embarassingly cheesy. Til now – with apologies to all the males in my life who love him – the sight of Tony Robbins’ face on the cover of a book sends a shiver up my spine, but there is a whole world of knowledge that I’ve been missing out on for years and now I’m trying to catch up. However, I wasn’t totally wrong – just as there are some utterly dismal entries into literary fiction, the newly coined “self-management” category has spawned some doozies. I have read some of them so you don’t have to. I won’t name names, but I will only include here the ones that deserve to be shared.

I didn’t know who Ryan Holiday was when I picked this up, but apparently he is a Big Deal in his world. He addresses the elephant in the room immediately by explaining that he is not “an expert” on ego, but a student and victim – something I think we can all relate to. Reading this was reminiscent of basic Sufi principles as well as practical Stoic philosophy distilled into a very readable format with numerous historical examples to illustrate the points. One of my friends began reading it, and it’s great to have historical reference points outside our religious traditions for humble behavior, we now sometimes say, “Be Sherman, not Grant” in reference to the utterly self-effacing behavior of the former in battle. Sherman, who outranked Grant, sent him a letter with supplies writing: “This is your show; call upon me for any assistance I can provide.”

“What is rare,” Holiday tells us, “is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”

The book is not always comfortable to read – if you read it honestly. I often found myself more accurately portrayed in the “what not to do” examples.  But it is 100% worth the time commitment of getting through it. Needless to say, it made its way into my Quote Book.

One of the most lasting, pithy reminders was this: Do you want to “Be” or “Do”. Here, “be” means “be known as”, whereas “do” means to do the work. Do you want to be known as a great scholar? Or actually get up in the early morning and read those books when the cameras aren’t rolling? Do you want to be known as the neighborhood’s most awesome mom? Or do you want to put down the iPad and squish into a tiny twin bed with your kids and a book with more than the required 2-minute story told in a rush? Be or Do has become such a handy shorthand for me. That alone was worth the price of the (library) book – fines are real people!

This one is a less hearty recommendation. Full-disclosure: I neither finished the book, nor included it in my Quote Book. For a couple reasons. First off, though the title alone annoyed me a little, it was the liberal use of vulgar language in the book that really turned me off. I know that’s just not the case for everyone, but I did not want to become desensitized to language that I didn’t want to find myself – or my kids – using. And I certainly couldn’t leave the book lying around anywhere. Secondly, I feel like I got the gist of the message by reading the first few chapters and skimming the rest.

Why is it even here? Immortalized on my blog? Because as I was reading it, I realized that his central point was a huge problem for me. I simply give far too many – ahem, “flips” – about far too many things. Manson posits that we all are granted a finite amount of “flips” to give. If we start throwing around flips like confetti, when we really need that emotional energy, when something really flip-worthy comes along, we are so depleted we are not able to rise to the occasion. Not only that, but everyone around us has become desensitized to our constant outrage at every turn.

Many years ago, my husband and I took an evening stroll down to the end of our street where some new houses were going up. Across from the new houses, our elderly neighbors, Betty and Jim, were out on their porch. Actually, Jim was on his porch, Betty was standing sentinel on the edge of her lawn. We should have known by her body language that our “how are you” would spring her into action. “Have you SEEN these monstrosities?” she gesticulated at the absolutely ordinary houses on the other side. We followed her wildly flapping hands and looked helplessly at each other for clues. She took our silence for stunned endorsement and continued, “How… many … ROOFLINES and GABLES does ONE house need?!” She began crashing her hands together at the thumbs over and over in imitation of the multiple roof-pitches. Looking back at her own prim, well-behaved roofline, she asked Jim, “How many rooflines do we have Jim? How many have we ever had?”
“Just the one, Betty, just the one.” In my memory Jim had a smooth southern drawl. Not unlike Foghorn Leghorn.

Personally, I found Betty riveting and could have stayed there all night. My husband was less enchanted and mumbled some politism that excused us. I’ve often told this story when dinner parties get dull and it usually elicits laughter and spirals upwards into good times for all. But it was only recently, while reading this book, that I turned to my husband and asked him, “Am I Betty? Do I give too many f*%#s???” The wise man didn’t answer, but it finally dawned on me why he never found the story funny. (I assumed it was a language barrier – he’s Canadian) But in fact, it turns out that my husband was Jim. If this was the Twilight Zone, we would walk back down Ravine Street and find no house where Betty and Jim lived, no memory of anyone by that name.  Rod Serling would intone: You see, there was never a Betty, other than the one that existed in Samah’s future. If she comes across this book in time, Betty and Jim will disappear. If not, we will meet them again, but only in the future, only, in the Twilight Zone.

Not worth your flips, Betty. Not worth your flips

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