Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful festive season, and that 2020 is being kind to you so far.
As regular readers will know, I love books. I feel like I have a special relationship with them – so often the right book comes along at just the right time. Over the years my progress has been fast-tracked by standing on the shoulders of literary giants.
But there’s always room for improvement. As I was reviewing the highlighted passages from the books I’d read in 2019 (I mostly read e-books on the Kindle app, meaning I can easily review my highlights on the Amazon website – and yes, I know all the awful things about Amazon, but we all have our vices) I was aghast at how much I’d forgotten, even from books that I know seemed really important to me at the time. And it ended up being a huge exercise to review all the 52 books I had read (notice, I don’t say “finished”) last year.
So for 2020 I’m experimenting with a different way. I’ve come up with a reading plan (on an Excel spreadsheet, of course) in which I’ve grouped books by subject. The theory is that by reading several books on the same theme one after another, I will get a more rounded view and create a stronger mental map of the subject. And then if I summarise that group of books, say, in a blog post, I’ll reinforce the learning still further. And I won’t have such a humungous task to catch up at the end of the year.
So, we’ll see how it goes. The other alarming aspect was that it was easy to come up with my 2020 reading list from books I already have in my Kindle library, but haven’t even started yet. The beauty and the peril of e-books is how easy they are to buy, but sadly, for now at least, buying a book is not the same as reading it.
Okay, on to my favourite books of 2019, in no particular order….
I read this for the pilot Illumination discussion group under the auspices of the Sisters, which was loosely themed on sustainability, but the book touches on so much more. Over the course of many years visiting the remote mountain region of Ladakh in northern India, Helena has learned a lot about their traditional way of life – and how it is now under threat from “development”. The strong social structures that have enabled people to live sustainably, peacefully, and happily for centuries are now being eroded. Income per capita may be rising, but wellbeing is in decline. While on the one hand being a beautiful escape into a simpler and idyllic way of life, the book is also a warning that “progress” isn’t always progress. I also recommend the film based on the book, The Economics of Happiness, available for rent on Vimeo.
The widely acclaimed memoir by the daughter of a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, for whom “home-schooling” meant no schooling at all, but rather child labour in her father’s highly dangerous scrapyard. It’s an inspiring story of courage and determination, as she teaches herself to read and write in order to climb out of the repressive world of her parents.
Amusing, but also sharply insightful, and occasionally outraging selection of essays that hold a mirror up to the patriarchal society. Rebecca may or may not have invented the word “mansplaining”, but she is certainly its foremost proponent. The essay of the title tells the story of how she and a friend met a man in Aspen who asked her about her work, and she mentioned she had just published a book about Eadweard Muybridge. He immediately leaped in to ask, “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” and proceeded to enlighten about her own book, based purely on his reading of the review in the New York Times. Rebecca’s friend had to say three or four times, “That’s her book”, before the words sank in and he realised his faux pas.
I’m not really into self-help books any more, mostly because of the premise that there is something “wrong” with the reader that needs to be “fixed”, but a trusted friend in India recommended this book, and it’s good. Written by the founder of Mindvalley, the personal growth platform, he had me at Law #1: “Transcend the culturescape”. I’m all about questioning the paradigm.
Wonderful wisdom from a Buddhist nun, this book reminds us that happiness and sorrow are two sides of the same coin, and it’s unrealistic and in fact undesirable to yearn for nonstop happiness, because sadness has so much to teach us. In our culture we deem some emotions “good” and others “bad”, but when we just accept what is, and look for the gift, everything becomes a blessing. This book is balm for the troubled soul. (More about this book in this blog post.)
As a fellow seeker for Zen on the sea, I really appreciated these beautifully-written Buddhism-oriented memoirs by surfer Jaimal Yogis. Around the same time I read the fictional Tenzin Norbu mysteries by Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay, with a Buddhist private eye as the occasionally heroic but usually fallible protagonist. For some light, Buddhism-infused reading, this was an unbeatable combination. (More about Saltwater Buddha in this blog post.)
Meggan Watterson is a theologian, but not as we know them. Queer, sweary, and extremely down-to-earth, she takes us on a journey as she investigates the missing gospel of Mary Magdalene (and also those of Philip and Thomas, which didn’t make it into the New Testament for similar reasons). What was so incendiary about these excluded gospels? They said we can all access the divine directly, without the need for priests, bishops, and popes. By rebranding Mary from beloved apostle to prostitute, the ambitious men of the early Christian church scored a double-whammy – they justified leaving her story out of the Bible, while preserving the boys-only bastion of the church hierarchy. A compelling read.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah, tells the amazing story of her journey from unmarried mother to founder of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, using nonviolent protest to bring about the end of the brutal civil war that had wracked her country and claimed the lives of many of her friends and family. A tribute to the power of showing up and doing what is needed, day after day, until the job is done.
Wilding: the Return of Nature to a British Farm, by Isabella Tree
When their estate is no longer viable as a farm, Isabella and her husband turn it back over to nature, which becomes the real star of this book. Nature is marvellous, surprising, and resilient – when we give it a chance. (More about this in a previous blog post.)
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado-Perez
If you live in the UK, you may have heard of Carrie Criado-Perez for her campaign opposing the removal of the only woman to be featured on British bank notes, when the Bank of England planned to replace the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note. She succeeded: Jane Austen was installed on the £10 note. Her book is rich with examples, facts and figures on how the “default human” is still male, in all sorts of situations from clinical trials to police body armour to snow clearance. If you don’t have time to read the book, I recommend the podcast in which Carrie is interviewed by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard – the episode of 20th Sept, 2019, on A Podcast of One’s Own (all sorts of other goodies on there too, including Hillary Clinton, Sandi Toksvig, and Kathy Lette).
If Women Rose Rooted: A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging, by Sharon Blackie
If I had to choose one favourite book for 2019, this would probably win by a whisker. It resonated very deeply with me, as she describes her escape from the Wasteland of conventional corporate life to the edges of the world, seeking out the remotest parts of the Celtic landscape and re-grounding herself in the land of her forefathers (and, I suppose I should add, foremothers). She weaves together memoir, folklore, and interviews with contemporary women who in various ways are embodying the transition to a more sustainable and grounded way of being. There were so many parallels with my own story that I found myself repeatedly thinking, “Exactly!” and “What she said!” (More in this blog post.)
I hope you might pick at least one of these to try. Let me know how it goes.
And I’ll see how I get on with my new reading plan. Stay tuned!