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  • Sean


"Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brigest gems in a useful life." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you are new to the Books & Beers world, know that I often find myself wandering down the path of books about solitude, being alone, and boredom. Perhaps there is a sense of longing for younger days without being inundated with technology everywhere. To sit quietly in a room and rely on our imagination to find wonder in the world. A book called How to Do Nothing stands out to me and immediately goes on my list. Jenny Odell has written that book supporting the real world and ever-encroaching attention economy that prods at our defences daily.


As we take up the book, Jenny lays down the gauntlet of this encroachment as we all try to find our way through a real-life that now includes social media and perhaps a personal brand that many of us may not have been expecting.

"it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live."

As Emerson highlighted, the need for us to protect our spare moments is chipped away by devices that are insidiously capable of distracting us to no end. As Jenny noted, they are altering the way we think about ourselves offline as well. Have you found yourself impacted in your offline day-to-day life by this personal branding? In my case, there has been a definite change in how my vacations are planned, for example. Looking for beautiful bookstores and trendy breweries to visit may not have made my list six or seven years ago, and yet now I find myself picking locations that have both.


Is this a bad thing? This is perhaps a mundane example as it is something I enjoy but are these decisions at the cost of something else? Maybe I would pick a location with neither of these things but instead allow me to get out and spend time in nature. Odell's book focuses on this very thing. How do we peel ourselves away from our computers and devices while reconnecting with something that restores us? She spends time exploring the parks around her place while learning about their history and the small details that make them unique.


It is something I've been working on myself—the simple act of getting outside and going for a walk. Going for a walk and perhaps not being distracted by anything. Leave your phone at home and try to avoid the distraction, and watch what happens. What do you see? What do you hear? I'm actually finding it incredible the variety of birds that live close to my house and the ponds nearby; perhaps a hobby for when I get older!


Like many of these books, I found it particularly enlightening to match my own thoughts about the attention economy while weighing the irony of being someone who creates content online and tries to capture your attention. How do we find balance in this new world? How do I find balance? It requires us to think deeply about why we do what we do.


A few guidelines:

a) You have to understand the fundamental reasons why you are creating content.


Books & Beers grew out of a desire to learn photography and also sharpen my writing skills. As time progressed and gained traction, it now creates value for others by finding new books and new ideas.


b) You need to understand the nature of the attention economy and look deeply at the impact it may be having on your life.


How do you interact with social media? Are you someone who can separate your personal life from one online? Have you found yourself picking up unwanted habits as a result of social media? Perhaps you are shopping more often or find yourself feeling more down than usual after having just scrolled through Instagram or Facebook. These are the small things that chip away at our self-esteem and lead us astray in understanding who we actually are. Does the idea of taking a weeklong break scare you? It's nothing to be embarrassed by because many of us are in the same boat. It should raise the question as to why though, and what fundamentally are you fearful of. It's more than likely the idea of missing out on something.


c) Do I feel good about what I'm creating and why?


This is perhaps the most straightforward question to ask but the most challenging to answer. If you've spent some time thinking about the impact on your life, do you feel good about your social media activity? Do you find that overall it has improved your life? With Books & Beers, I can definitely say yes. The act of learning photography and long-form writing has been a huge outlet for my own creativity, something that didn't exist before this.


Another concern that Odell and I share is the polarization that social media seems to foster. She writes:


"I worry that if we let our real life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed - never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege."

Jenny goes on to recognize what Chris Bail also talks about in Breaking the Social Media Prism: "[the inability to publicly change our minds] is one of the things I find the most absurd about our current social media, since it's completely normal and human to change our minds, even about big things." Social media seems to have an innate ability to polarize people further. A conversation between two people face to face allows for more flexibility vs. a conversation that happens online where everyone can watch it unfold all while yelling themselves. As we become our branded identities, it becomes more and more challenging to change our views and beliefs. They become part of who we are perceived to be and thus who we are.


This book is a book for anyone feeling subtle anxiety about the world moving a bit too quickly and social media being part of the problem. It's a book that provides a prescription but ultimately forces us to ask ourselves what the best course of action is. Odell's own path may differ vastly from our own, but it eventually involves connecting with those parts of our lives that exist outside of a screen. You may enjoy being a creator, but it is essential to recognize the line between who you are as an individual and who the online persona is.

 

A few other posts you may find inspiring if you are interested in learning about social media and our place with it. A post on Chris Bail's Breaking the Social Media Prism. Roger McNamee's Zucked is an excellent look into Facebook and how our lives are being monitored for profit. If you want to make a big break then consider this post on Catherine Price's How to Break Up WIth Your Phone.

  • Sean


My first encounter with Sebastian Junger was through his book on philosophical look at belonging, Tribe. A book rich with stories on how belonging to tribes connects us to humanity and something deeper. In a similar style, Freedom delves into the idea of what it means to be free through Junger's own eyes and stories linked to his journey across the Eastern U.S.


Junger and three friends set out for the better part of a year travelling railroad lines across the East Coast, examing the land and people they encounter. His writing style has always exuded a sense of calmness, giving off an air of authority as he reflects on the journey he is taking and stories of the past. Junger looks back at Native Americans and their freedoms living off the land versus the slow creeping behemoth of settlers moving across the land imposing their own sense of freedom.


As Junger notes, the joke about freedom is that most forms of space are simply swapping obedience to one thing for adherence to another. Settlers believing their heading West to freedom, imposing it on the native population through violence, only to find themselves obedient to a government. Junger notes:


"...the inside joke about freedom is that you're always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another."

It is a striking realization that much of what we do is out of obedience depending on how you look at it. Even the chase for financial freedom and independence is predicated on our obedience to a financial system that to some degree controls what we do. Perhaps the key is recognizing that there are layers of freedom and understanding what we truly value.


There is something about Junger's writing that I love. If I had one complaint, it's that the book is too short! The journey itself sounded fascinating as the small group of friends avoid police and strange characters while reflecting on their lives as individuals and meeting some interesting people along the way. I would have loved more stories of being on the road and those experiences in Junger's voice.


I'm reminded of Robert Moor's book On Trails in some respect. Robert brings a similar storytelling ability to the paths we walk in our daily lives. The railroad is yet another trail that some of us walk and constitutes one of the most extensive cross-country "trail" systems in North America. Consider this quote from Robert Moor with regards to super-thru-hikers (consider the Appalachian Trail thru-hike takes five months!) and perhaps what they seek:


"...out here, all alone, I caught a glimmer of the feeling these super-thru-hikers were chasing. It was the same feeling the early AT thru-hikers must have experienced: lonesome, uncertain, faintly electric. It felt like an adventure."

Reading those words felt similar to the experience I took from Junger's book as he describes the feeling of sleeping on alert. A sense of anything can happen and am I ready to respond in whatever way necessary?


As Robert Moor travels his own thru-hike, he reflects on the mental challenges that everyone faces on the road for prolonged periods: "We had each faced down the same Cerberus of loneliness, boredom, and self-doubt, and we had learned that the only solution was to out-walk it.


A reader should note that this book follows the journey that is also documented in the 2014 movie The Last Patrol. Although I don't think that takes anything away from it, the trip itself was made in stages. And on the last day of the journey, Junger notes: "The trip was over. I was 51 years old, I had no children, I was in the process of getting divorce." Suddenly, the link to what Robert Moor talks about is made clear. Perhaps Junger was out there facing his own Cerberus and dealing with it by walking it out.

 

Consider a brief look at Robert Moor's On Trails to supplement your reading of Junger with this post. Perhaps a reflection of a writer on the road is Travels with Charley written by John Steinbeck; I have a post here.

 

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May came and went in a flurry of reading over here, how about you? This post over on Instagram even garnered some hate! "There's no way you fully understood what's written in those books."


Just a reminder, everyone:

  1. Read at your own pace.

  2. Read the books you like.

  3. Stop wasting your energy judging what others are doing!

Reading is an opportunity to learn and grow, and just because I can read X number of books one month doesn't mean you have to or should feel bad about reading Y number of books. I'm sure some people will read this post which will have read more than this, and that's awesome. Keep doing you!


With that out of the way, let's do a quick recap of May and see where we end up. Complete reviews will come under the new format. I'm trying to capture whole blog posts for each book and create more links amongst posts, a Zettelkasten approach to blog posts if you will.


New York Times Bestseller and considered one of President Barack Obama's "Favorite Books of 2019", Jenny Odell brings her own philosophical take on breaking free from addictive technology. Not just breaking free, though, also refocusing on the importance of nature and how we can adequately understand happiness. If you feel like the world is rushing past and everything is about hustle, it may be time for you to pick up a book like this to garner a different perspective.


Sebastian Junger, the author of the influential book Tribe, returns with a personal look at freedom and what it really means. He and three friends spent part of a year travelling railroad lines across the East Coast, and Junger reflects on the journey and life around him through stories of Apache raiders, fighting strategies, and how brutal life was on the frontier. If anything, I think this book could have been longer! Reminds me of the book On Trails by Robert Moor in some respects.


I loved reading this quote from Adam Grant on this one: "Full of revealing, instantly applicable ideas for leveraging your strengths and overcoming your weaknesses." That sums this book up in a nutshell. Do you want to learn how to listen better? This is a one-stop book to find practical ways to improve listening skills and the reasons why it is so important, especially in today's day and age.


If you haven't already read The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander, stop here and go read that book! It is exceptional and one of my favourite books (featured earlier in this post on getting out of ruts!) This book follows that path and focuses specifically on the pathways that we have laid down in our own minds. To find fulfillment, we often need to spend time understanding who we really are. What ruts have we created in our mind that started as some event as a child? Rosamund uncovers these pathways while also providing solutions on how to get out of them.

Winner of the 1985 National Book Award, White Noise takes an uncomfortable and humorous look at the state of the world back in the '80s and the rise of consumerism. Much of it applies even today, as Jack Gladney and family try to navigate their own life. At the same time, the world turns chaotic as a mysterious chemical cloud is released over the town, and the family must deal with it. Suspense fills the pages while we laugh at the absurdity of how Jack deals with the situations that he encounters.


I don't even know how to describe this one. Wrapped in the guise of a self-help book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia brings humour, suspense, and emotion as the book unfolds into creative storytelling at its best. This is really a book that people need to read to understand. It brings a critical eye to the world around him while also bringing the sense of hope that you begin to latch on to as the story progresses. A fun and moving read.


Yes, a television show is coming for this one, so now is the perfect time to jump into Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time world! This is book one in the series and introduces us to a cast of characters as we set off on an adventure the likes of Lord of the Rings. This is my first time through the series, but it will be good if Book 1 is any indication. The pacing and detail create the right mixture of immersion, with enough mystery and suspense enticing you to continue reading more. Can't wait to jump into Book 2!


Famed writer Natalie Goldberg brings a powerful memoir of her own life to the page (if you haven't read Writing Down the Bones and are a writer, this is highly recommended!). This book tells the story of Natalie's life dealing with abuse and the unravelling of her Buddhist community upon the news of abuse by her teacher. Her deep attachment to her teacher, Katagiri Roshi, is ruptured by his sexual indiscretions. This book tries to find peace amongst the chaos the way only Natalie can.


These little books by Austin Kleon are a must for anyone who is following a creative path. Filled with simple ideas on making the most of our current social media world, Austin focuses you on what the title claims; Show Your Work! There are endless possibilities when we step back and realize all that we are creating today. I'd argue this book is something you can turn to every day if you are looking for a touch of inspiration.


Brian Grazer is the producer behind some of the most popular movies and television shows, including A Beautiful Mind, 8 Mile, Arrested Development, and Apollo 13. His book A Curious Mind focuses on the critical skill that got him where he is today, curiosity. As someone who also finds themselves curious, this felt like a no-brainer. This book brings an interesting perspective from someone who lives in a world of creativity.


A surprise hit for me this month was Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset. Any book that can help someone shift their mindset from a fixed defensive position to one that is open and looking for opportunity is a winner in my mind. Julia does a great job working through how anyone can start to shift their own mentality to recognize the most accurate picture possible of a world that basks in confusion. One of my highly recommends this month.


Love Yourself. Two simple words pour off the page as Kamal tells his story of losing his love for himself and working diligently to find it again. He attributes much of his success to showing himself the love that he needs to go out in the world and show love. Through a daily practice of self-love, Kamal guides the reader through a process that softens the language we use on ourselves while helping dig ourselves out of the personality ruts we created.


May's spiritual book choice was Thich Nhat Hanh's book Living Buddha, Living Christ. Nhat Hanh is a favourite of mine, and this book provides a mindful way for anyone to look at the practices of Christianity and Buddhism as sharing the same road. It's an exploratory book in that Thich considers himself a Christian in spirit because of Christ's fundamental beliefs. He also doesn't hold back from criticizing the religion and its current standards that diverge away from the teachings.


The essentials, water, food, and housing, many of us take for granted. For a large proportion of the population, these items are not guaranteed. This book dives into a variety of topics that are often misunderstood when it comes to poverty. Many mind-blowing statistics in this one that I think are important for anyone to read and understand. This book is essential for people who believe poverty is caused by laziness which seems to be an epidemic on social media.


This book is a great daily reader for anyone who wants a different perspective on entrepreneurship. Derek Sivers built CD Baby and got out all without clear intentions in mind and a singular focus on the importance of the customer. Sivers breaks down his focus into essential points that everyone should follow when thinking about starting a business.


E.O. Wilson provides the introduction to this one and also provides one of the most poignant quotes to support this book: "As clear a picture of humanity's impact on earth's natural environment as any ever written." This book focuses on the importance of protecting 50% of the Earth's lands which is a target that is often overlooked. Not only is it essential to limit CO2, but the interconnectedness of the world and land is essential to maintaining our ecosystems and all of the organisms that are living within. Tony Hiss lays out some fantastic research while travelling across the world, making the case that Gaia really is something we need to be thinking about.


Pam Grout brings the world of metaphysics to the practical, guiding the reader through nine easy steps to recognize the world's interconnectedness. If you believe that the Universe is interconnected and if you ask for something, you will eventually get it, this is a book for you. Fans of The Secret and Joe Dispenza will find this book practical and easy to follow.


Steven Pressfield brings his practical, no-nonsense take on creativity and layers it into the epic Hero's Journey storyline. Pressfield recognizes that even Artists must go through their own journey before overcoming resistance and doing the work they were meant to do. This book has simple guidance in short and easy-to-read sections and is an excellent pick-me-up for anyone who may be struggling with a creative project or finding themselves in a rut.


In 1974, the world was in awe as Philippe Petit wire walked between the two World Trade Centers. This interconnected story tells of many people impacted that day by the wire walker and how their lives relate. A powerful and all-reaching book, Colum touches on pain, loneliness, and love all while weaving these stories together for the reader. Winner of the National Book Award, the book stands up to its acclaim, in my opinion.


Easily my favourite book in this stack, Tim O'Brien has written a masterpiece in this one. Crafting stories around war, life now, and the power of stories to heal. One of the amazing things about this book is Tim's ability to step outside of the story and tell the reader how he will craft the story, then step in and do it. It's not only a masterclass book of the stories told but also on how to write stories. A candidate for my Top 10 for 2021!


 

If you like the book lists be sure to check out a few other of my posts (although I haven't been as consistent as I'd like!). December had some big highlights so you can check out the post here. If you are really interested in good books though I'd also suggest checking out my Top 10 of 2020 list here.