Books! So Many Books!
Every year I set the intention to read fifty-two books. I don’t always reach this goal, but the point is more to track what I am reading than to achieve any great number of books read. Some years, however, I not only reach this goal but surpass it. 2017 was such a year, as my final count on December 31st was eighty-two books — thirty books over my target!
Reading is a joy and pleasure for me. It is what I do with my spare time. I don’t think a single day goes by without me reading, even if it’s just for fifteen or twenty minutes while I have my morning pot of tea. I make time for reading because I want to and because my life, at the moment, makes it incredibly easy to sit down and get lost in a book for an entire afternoon.
But I appreciate that making the time to read isn’t always easy — work, family, and community obligations can take up a lot of our days and weeks — and not of the same priority level for all people. Which is why I like to think about the books I have read in any given year and consider just a few as candidates to recommend to those who do not have quite the same ravenous appetite for the written word, but who still appreciate a good book now and then.
Here, for your reading pleasure, are ten titles of the 82 I read last year. Even if you just read five of them in 2018, they are likely to be five books that will really make you think, see the world in an entirely different way, and open up your heart and mind. In some cases I have included extra resources or alternative media to connect with the same content. There is no fiction on this list, but I found all these books to be ‘easy reads’, which is to say that they are not heavily academic or overly wordy.
Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism create Difference
Cordelia Fine outlines how every study you’ve ever heard of, or argument you’ve ever encountered that implies there is any ‘hardwiring’ for gendered behaviour is based on specious studies long disproven. Including: “Well, my three-year-old girl turned a truck into a baby and my three-year-old boy used a doll as a gun.” She points out that before a child is even born, the first thing we ask is what sex it will be, and this shapes how we treat the infant, who is a sponge. Before a child has a sense of self and personal identity, they will ‘parrot’ back the messages they have been bombarded with, and gendered messaging starts in the womb — so it’s little wonder that pre-school aged children mimic the gender roles they see modelled.
Just as biological arguments for racism are dismissed, so too should biological arguments for sexism. The brain is a malleable thing and our understanding of the workings of the mind is in its infancy.
It is also cleverly written so the reader is compelled to refer to the notes in the back. Fine has written this book in a way that shows us how to check a reference and how legitimate it may or may not be. In this way, the book beautifully dismantles so many so-called ‘facts’ about gender while also showing us how to continue our own research.
I highly recommend this books for anyone to read, but particularly for parents or anyone about to become a parent. Consider that your child is a human being, not a construct, and that the shape of their genitals actually tells us very little about the type of person they will be.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness
I don’t know that I can write a summary of this book that will do it justice. Michelle Alexander has created an insightful, thought-provoking, in-depth analysis of racism in America and the modern day system of mass incarceration that plagues the country.
I don’t believe anyone could read this book and not gain an understanding of why the United States is as it is. I was already pretty aware of how the history of enslavement has shaped the country, but this book really examines the systemic oppression that makes the #BlackLivesMatter movement so necessary.
I also highly recommend listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Alexander on On Being and watching the Netflix documentary The 13th.
And then go out and vote, and get involved, and question the portrayal of people in Black bodies in the media, and name racism when you hear it and see it.
Jarvis Masters shares the story of his life — a story far too common for people born into poverty and especially among Black men — and how love was a binding thread that helped him and continues to support him on death row.
This book is a beautiful demonstration of skilful means, cultivating compassion, and the practice of non-violence in the most difficult of circumstances. Masters shows us what it is to be a Bodhisattva, to show up for the suffering in the world and make a choice not to contribute to it, no matter how high the individual risk.
Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion
If you are curious about Buddhism, or if you are a long-time practitioner, or you are a new practitioner of a few years, or if you just want a bit of wisdom to fuel your day, this is an excellent book. It is like Pema Chödrön condensed, or Buddhism 101.
The 108 ‘chapters’ are short, quick to read contemplations a person could work with for the rest of their lives. It could be read in one go, or picked up and thumbed through casually over the course of several months or a lifetime. It’s even small and easily transportable, so you could keep it in a bag or a desk drawer at work, easily at hand and available when you’re feeling stuck, frustrated, or want to take a moment to yourself.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
There were so many moments throughout this book where Roxane Gay vividly describes something akin to my experience as a woman in the world, and I felt like shouting “YES! THAT!” It was like listening to a song that captures a human emotion and knowing — truly knowing — that the writer really does know exactly how you feel.
Gay also has the incredible skill of writing human emotion so that it is relatable, even if the situation in which it arises is not one we have ever experience or could possibly experience. For this reason, regardless of embodiment or identity, this is one of those books that I think almost everyone would benefit from reading.
It is a tool for cultivating compassion. It is a reminder that we cannot know all the things at play in a person’s life. It is a request for us to be kind, to check our intentions, to listen so we can hear, and not assume we have answers. It is a model of how intersectionality creates a full human being, and how the interconnection of society, family, and culture influences that intersectionality.
It is a fantastic, painful, beautiful and necessary book and I am grateful to Gay for having written it.
Made for Goodness—and why this makes all the difference
As a Buddhist I like exploring and studying other forms of spirituality and religion to see where I can find intersections, and as a way to get to the root of teachings, free from cultural and social trappings and manipulation. I chose those book for the title, as one of the foundations of Buddhism is the basic goodness of humanity. I was intrigued to read a Christian take on this notion, given that often Christianity actually enforces and reinforces a view of basic human badness.
Desmond Tutu is a delightful and profoundly wise human being, who presents Christian teachings in a way I had never encountered before. There is nothing ‘fluffy’ about his faith and practice, as both grew within the confines of Apartheid in South Africa, where Tutu was witness to some of the most atrocious acts of human cruelty.
He uses the word ‘God’ synonymously with ‘love’ and presents love as far more than a mere emotion we feel. Love, Tutu teaches, is the things we do, the way we show care, and our willingness to be better.
This book made me think about Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s teachings and how she has turned the word God into a verb.
God is not outside of ourselves, but our own capacity for goodness.
Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society
In 2017 I had the incredible opportunity to see the Karmapa when he was visiting Canada, and the chance to ask him a question. The video of this is available on YouTube, and well worth taking some time to watch, but it is a mere taste of what this book has to offer.
While the author is a prominent Buddhist leader, this book is not about being a Buddhist. This is a book about how to be a human being. It’s about noticing that what we do matters because we are none of us isolated from others and the impact personal, societal and community choices will have on the entire global community.
After reading this book, my awareness of the choices I make and the impact they have heightened. The result has been to consider what I consume, how often, and the resulting waste. It cut through any impulse I have to just ‘have stuff’ and has significantly raised my awareness. I continue to question choosing convenience over sustainability and make changes on a weekly, if not daily basis, in how I live my life.
Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation
This book is galvanising. It is profound and timely. This is Dharma for anyone who has moved from “I am suffering” to “There is suffering” and has a longing to be of benefit.
Reading it was more effective than drinking a cup of coffee for me. I am energised, enthused, empowered by these teachings. Finally, teachers who speak to my longing to be a bodhisattva in everything I do, who offer guidance and a framework for how to live the Dharma for the liberation of ALL beings!
It can be read in one go or you can pick out chapters and take them on one at a time over several months. There are also many resources and wonderful webinars available from Reverend williams, Lama Rod and Dr. Syedullah through the Radical Dharma website. You can also listen to my interview with Lama Rod on Everything is Workable!
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World
This book is delightful, charming, and immensely practical. It demonstrates how we fit into the world around us, and how that interdependence has a mutual and ongoing influence in all directions.
Without using the word once, this book explains and provides practices for being mindful. It gives detailed instruction on how to notice, using birdsong as ‘the point’ or ‘object’ of meditation. Jon Young emphasises the importance of establishing a sit spot — a place outside where you can do a daily practice of noticing — and how this will influence your awareness over time. Young also talks about the interdependence of all things, and how observing birds is just one way to see this clearly.
Plus, birds are super neat and it’s fun to learn about their behaviours and have an understanding of the little dramas we can watch play out in our yards, parks and gardens.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate
I couldn’t read more than five pages of this book without making a ‘Huh!’ noise. It’s fascinating, informative, and full of ‘Fun Facts’.
While I always have loved trees and forests, I now have a much better understanding of why, and I will enjoy them all the more for it. From the ‘wood wide web’ of fungi through which trees communicate to the breadth of life which relies upon them, trees and forests are yet another beautiful demonstration of interdependence and why it is so crucial for us to acknowledge interconnectedness.
Originally published on Medium
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