Updated: May 19, 2021

First, I want to thank A.A. Knopf for sending a free copy of Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean over.

My first encounter with Joan Didion came with her powerful book The Year of Magical Thinking. I had no previous experience with her writing and didn't fully know what to expect; to say I was rocked would be an understatement. And perhaps to my own dismay, I found that book so powerful that I've now pegged any further reads to that experience. It really is an unfair hurdle to set and partly why going back to Didion's older works for me is a struggle.

As I piece together this book, following on the heals of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I am starting to see the writer that Didion truly is. I should have started here. To see the sharpness in her writing and ability to critique while also opening herself up to the flaws that she sees in herself. It wasn't common for writers to be forward with their own weaknesses; the idea that Joan herself didn't believe she would be a writer and yet became it guided by this thirst to understand what she was thinking.

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

One of the essays I found particularly good was her look back at Hemingway and his life as a writer while focusing on the nature of writing and what death means to your legacy. Hemingway was clear that upon his death he wanted none of his letters published; they did not represent the writer that he was and for him, his writing had to be fully by his hand; edited and such. Of course, his letters were published as were additional unwritten manuscripts begging the question as to whether this is truly his writing?

If someone else comes along and edits the writing does it still hold enough of the original essence to be considered their writing?

As a writer/reader it always feels insightful to peer deeper into the minds of our heroes and yet perhaps this voyeurism does a disservice to those we admire. Perhaps deep down that is always a fear of a prolific writer; that control is lost and your legacy is left to others to fill in the blanks and perhaps try to make a bit more money on what you left behind.

If you haven't read anything from Didion before I'd encourage you to start with her essays first before diving into something like The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is viewed as one of her finest works. This gives you a chance to see her writing outside of the incredibly poignant emotional rollercoaster that Didion can bring to the page.

I'll leave you with one last quote from Didion herself; an insight into writing and how we interpret books. Something I'd never given thought to but perhaps could change the way we view our interaction with authors and books.

“In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

I haven't covered Didion here on the blog before but encourage you to check out my previous Instagram posts on Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking. You may also appreciate Rebecca Solnit if you haven't already read anything by her. Check out my Instagram post on A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

  • Sean

Updated: May 19, 2021

"Don't be discouraged by the terrible news we hear; in reality, that reflects a small portion of the human story. Beneath the ugly tip of that glacier lies a vast reservoir of sensitivity and kindness - and each of us can enlarge that goodness."

Those words from the Dalai Lama are a good reminder to us all in a world of constantly being barraged by negativity and kick off our look at Daniel Goleman's A Force For Good.

Who else is tired of so much negativity out there these days?

April's spirituality book takes us back to visit The Dalai Lama from the eyes of someone else; author and science journalist Daniel Goleman, who has worked extensively on topics like emotional intelligence and social intelligence, had the opportunity to work with the Dalai Lama as their paths crossed while studying the science behind mindfulness.

The Dalai Lama is remarkably interested in the science world despite his appearance as a monk; his fascination and curiosity with the world in a sense brings him closer to trying to understand the world while also making it better.

I found this book to be more practical when coming up with ideas on how to make our lives better and the lives of others around us better. The practice of mindfulness and meditation comes up; a prelude to his subsequent book Altered Traits where he brings the science discussion behind forward to the modern-day.

The need for continued compassion for others is top of mind for The Dalai Lama; those words above show that concern. If all we do is believe everything we see and that negativity surrounds us why bother to try and do good for others? I'm reminded of Chris Bail's book Breaking the Social Media Prism and the fact that moderates tend to check out of the debate because of this very problem.

The Dalai Lama is relentlessly optimistic though and shares this message throughout the book while asking us to look within to better understand our own destructive emotions:

"noticing the emotional stirrings that signal destructive emotions, then thinking about what those stirrings might indicate - particularly fresh perspectives on our feelings rather than the same old rote thoughts that usually go with them."

It's not enough to accept our emotions but to pause, look at their nature, and perhaps let them go or realize we are caught in a pattern that keeps happening.

This has been one of the biggest takeaways for meditation from me; the ability to be caught by whatever emotion but then pause and recognize what is happening. Meditation practice provides a window into those patterns and helps to course-correct going forward.

This care about our own destructive emotions coincides with his belief that we must cultivate our own self-compassion before we can truly care for others:

"To cultivate genuine compassion, we need to take responsibility for our own care and have concern for everyone's suffering - including our own."

The notion of not casting stones in glass houses comes to mind whereby we may carry baggage and anger towards ourselves that then gets projected out into the world despite our best intentions.

This book also brought back to mind an idea I'd heard years ago; the narcissism of minor differences. In essence, we tend to focus on such trivial distinctions between people who are for the most part completely alike. These distinctions then allow us to exaggerate and justify our hostility towards them. Again, Chris Bail's thoughts on social media come to mind. If we fall in with a certain ideology or group we tend to amplify those differences in our speech and actions to belong to the group. As Goleman points out:

"As the bias hardens into outright prejudice, anything that disconfirms the negative steretype gets dismissed or ignored."

So what does all that mean? This is a worthwhile book to read on The Dalai Lama and I'd rank it higher than the previous book by Pico Iyer if only for the reason that it gives more insight into what we can do as individuals to better the world. Goleman has written a book capturing the essence of The Dalai Lama's message while trying to cater to a Western audience and I think he succeeds.

Pair this book with Pico Iyer's The Open Road for a more in-depth look at the life of The Dalai Lama. If you want a little more meditation in your life check out these selections, and if you are interested in Daniel Goleman's work on meditation you may want to check out Altered Traits.

Updated: May 19, 2021

“In the fullness of time, the 2020 lockdown of the U.S. economy will be viewed as the greatest policy blunder ever. Lost wealth and income will be measured in trillions of dollars. Any gain in lives saved or damage avoided was inapposite, since equally effective policy choices were available but untried. There’s no evidence that epidemiologists considered lives lost to drugs, alcohol, suicide, and despair when they pursued policies that pushed 60 million Americans out of jobs.”

And on that note, we dive into James Rickards' The New Great Depression, graciously sent to me by Portfolio Books and my April finance read.

How are you feeling after that one? Honestly, this book left a bad taste in my mouth. Everything about it felt like clickbait, including the title, and focused on a few key principles (which you wouldn't have expected in a book about the economy). One, the virus is the Chinese virus. This was a manufactured virus released by the Chinese to cripple economies around the world. I'll let that sink in (perhaps you actually follow this belief).

This book was written last year, but published in January, and James has gone ahead and claimed that this will single-handedly be the greatest depression the world has ever seen. The evidence he has seen in between March and September was enough for him to call it. Don't even bother; get out there and invest everything you have in gold because we will soon be shaving our gold bars to pay for goods and services.

It's frankly hard to read a book like this and try to take anything positive out of it. In some aspects Rickards was correct. The world did go into lockdown and create economic hardship around the world, but after the book was written, it's also showing incredible resilience and an ability to bounce back. The modern, interconnected world we see today has never experienced anything like this and to think we may have vaccines to large parts of the world by the end of this year is incredible (again not something that Rickards can point to in his book given that he's already mailed the book off).

Ok, so you get the picture. I felt like this was a clickbait book written to make a few bucks. This book could have been better if he had waited a year or two (but by then I'm sure there will be 100 more books) and avoided the discussion about the source of the virus altogether. Why spend half of the book speculating on the origins of the virus in a book about investing?

I'd suggest you avoid this one altogether (unless you happen to believe as Rickards does and are hoarding large amounts of gold bars) and look for books like Scott Galloway's Post Corona or Michael Lewis's The Premonition. Galloway's book is going to provide you with much better advice on where to look for opportunities in the new world with a better handle on what is actually happening while Michael Lewis's book is going to do a better job of describing the actual virus.

When authors write books like this and their prediction turns out to be grossly wrong do they ever go back and refund people's money or write the book about how wrong they were? Food for thought. I need a beer.

I'm looking forward to hearing from anyone else who has read this one. That's actually an honest statement because clearly, this book rubbed me the wrong way, and my own bias' shows through. I'm ok with that.

I feel like a book like this is a good example of creating unnecessary polarization; my post on Chris Bail's Breaking the Social Media Prism would be a good alternative. Or perhaps actual books on investing which I've outlined here.