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My reading goal last year was ridiculous, I admit. I wanted to read 50 books in the year 2016 in a burst of driven enthusiasm. I ended up reading 45. I want to be clear that this was only accomplished by choosing slimmer books with smaller page counts and I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction for this year’s goal, choosing a mere 10 books, in order to allow myself to read longer books at a slower pace.

There were many noteworthy books that I read in this challenge and I would like to share them and hopefully inspire a few people to pick up a title or two. I purchase the majority of my books on Amazon, seeking out used copies that cost between $1.00-7.00, meaning that with delivery the books tended to cost me between $5.00-15.00. It was very workable and I hope you can also locate these books for similarly cheap prices.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson 

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and founder and executive director of the Eqjustmercyual Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, those who cannot afford representation, and those who have been denied a fair trial. He is especially focused on individuals who face the death penalty and young people with long, harsh sentences. In this book, he talks about his experiences working in the criminal justice system as a lawyer who takes these kinds of cases. Even more specifically, he looks at racial bias in the justice system and how it disproportionately harms the poor. The humane and empathetic look at criminals who suffer enormously in our current system makes this is a necessary read. Also, his overarching message is very important for those worrying about the upcoming four years: he acknowledges how defeated he has felt, working on a never-ending mountain of tough cases that appear hopeless, but states that rather than give up, he has found it essential to maintain hope — how useful hope is, that it must be nurtured, and that great good can be done if one can hold onto it.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquezchronicles

This novel has the rich and vivid language found in Marquez’s other novels (other than his journalistic News of a Kidnapping) coupled with a narrative that is essentially a mystery story: how did a young man’s murder unfold? Or, more importantly, if everyone knew the murder was going to take place, why did no one stop it from happening? The narrative is fun, looking at the events of that day from numerous perspectives, an atmosphere of absurdity and whimsy surrounding the entire affair. Your mileage may vary, but this has become one of my favorite Marquez novels, and I’ve nearly read them all at this point. It’s also a rather quick read.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker

This book was not largely well-received. This is reflected in its Goodsubstitutereads rating. I can understand where this comes from: to start, teachers are an ornery group, often talked over by people who don’t know anything about education, often pressed underneath the system’s feet. Also, this book has an older white man who is a writer and not a teacher documenting his every day while substitute teaching for a month in a school district. There’s a lot to disagree with in this set-up. However, speaking as someone who was a classroom teacher and has stepped back into a substitute teacher role after moving to a different state, his observations are often relevant and worth reading. Many times, they were not dissimilar to things I have thought. Although he is largely ignorant of the dynamics within education, I enjoyed reading this book and I think his perspective as an outsider is not without value. You may want to couple this book with a Jonathan Kozol book, however, or at least some book written by an actual educator.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiquantumthief

This science-fiction novel is the first of three and I admit that I’ve only read this first part and have yet to make time for the other two. However, even without continuing with the storyline in the next installments, the society-building in Rajaniemi’s novel is fascinating. The plot might seem a little cheesy at first, with a Puss-in-Boots style thief that naturally outsmarts nearly everyone around him, but Rajaniemi makes it work well and the society he envisions on Mars, in the Moving City of Oubliette, is an amazing concoction of futuristic technology, complex government control, subcommunities and their function, and privacy and social engineering — it’s really unique. If you’re a fan of world building and science fiction, this is worth checking out.

The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanhhanh

Hanh is a Zen Master and this book is a quick and easy read thanks to his succinct and brief writing style. Hanh has many books on zen and compassion and this one focuses specifically on how to listen with compassion in order to communicate effectively. His message is simple and repetitive, but I found the simplicity of the message extremely applicable to my every day interactions with other people. He talks of writing, speaking and listening as a form of consumption, and as consuming unhealthy food inevitably harms us, consuming toxic speech also harms us. He presents compassion as a useful tool. He gives examples of how practicing compassionate speech (and compassionate listening) can work in different kinds of environments. I found myself re-reading certain useful passages months after completing it.

The Plague by Albert Camusplague

I picked up this book in the oppressive heat of last summer. My god, the environment in which I read this book made its contents weigh even more heavily upon my imagination. This book takes place in the African coastal city of Oran, which Camus also wrote about in his essay The Minotaur, during a period of plague that sweeps through the urban center. The story follows several characters, one a doctor, as they pass through the rise and fall of the plague, quarantined from their loved ones, experiencing profound suffering, ennui, entrapment, compassion, death and self-deceit. Camus tends to explore the same themes of death and ultimate meaning and absurdism in all his work, so those themes are present here as well.

 

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Let’s turn doing almost nothing into something to talk about.

I’m exploring my options by doing almost nothing for once. Or at least, I’m not driving to an office and sitting in between the office walls and letting fluorescent lights beam down into my eyes every day. I’m not plagued by constant dull headaches. I’m not sitting at a desk this summer.

Instead, I’ve elected to float below the surface, not quite staying afloat but also not sinking. I’m not hiding, I’m here, I’m just peering up through the surface.

The summer has developed a soupy consistency, all days are equally hot and humid. The air is moist and clings to the skin. From above, it weighs down on our brows and sends beads of sweat dripping down the backs of our necks. This summer, we are living in a fishbowl.

There’s no air conditioning in the car, so it’s a hot and heavy and necessary death trap. To travel anywhere in this vehicle is to volunteer to smother a warm pillow over our face. When the windows are rolled down all the way, the air whips by fast enough that there is some cooling effect. But this city is a knot of traffic, and most of the time spent in the car is baking into the cloth seats, oppressive clouds of air wafting in through the windows and hanging under the roof of the car. What an amazing machine, it can take us anywhere on this continent, we certainly could find the money to feed it gas, but surely it will kill us, or burst into flames. Touching the dashboard burns our fingers. Do not touch the seatbelts

But I don’t have the car this summer during the day. So this isn’t a transportation option for me in this time frame. I live in a cave, luckily, on the top floor of an apartment building built into a hill. The apartment is small, condensed, and the large windows in the back of the main living room open up to the trees sloping upward, blocking us from the view of the other apartments on the top of the hill. In order to fight the beating, violent heat from the other large windows facing out to the bare blue sky, I covered them with a vivid green tapestry with flowers and leaves curling around all throughout the design. During the day, the sun struggles to beam through these designs, illuminating the room in a light yellowish green.

I lock the door. I slide the golden chain into place. The other apartments are empty now, the fools in the office raised rent and no one wants them, and I can hear maintenance men clopping around in the building.

Most importantly, the old air conditioner runs all day long, swathed in the green tapestry and constantly filling the small space with a nice refreshing chill and droning hum. Since I’m well-aware this is racking up the electric bill, I keep all the other lights in the apartment off and the bedroom and bathroom door shut. The dark apartment, with light beaming in through the tapestry and the air cool, make the place feel like a cave.

We are living in a cave in a fishbowl this summer.

The days are so long that even when I wake up at 5:30AM there is light in the window. I’ve been sliding out of bed and we drink coffee in the morning, sitting in the same spots every day with our mugs, blessing the universe for routine, beautiful routine, gorgeous and amazing routine. Feeling scheduled brings us together, we can drag our bodies to where we know we are meant to be and put as little effort into our existence as possible. We can both buzz side by side, aware of each other, which is all we really need.

I just can’t stay in this cave forever. I need to escape occasionally and remember the world. In the middle of July, we slung some backpacks into the death box and drove up to New York for the weekend. We drove later at night, to escape some of the heat, at least. The sun was setting and the thick air composed a vibrant purple and pink sky, clouds stretching from the horizon and reaching for the center of the sky. In New York, we slept on several couches in cool apartments swathed with curtains.

We drove to the beach, walking through the molten sand dunes, heat radiating through us from all sides. The sand was clean and glimmering gold though. We fanned out the towels and lay down on a flat stretch, playing with the rocks and piling the sand up onto our bodies. The water was a blend of cool and warm, and we bounced along the sliding sand bars until we were far into the lake and everything looked small except the consistent endless blue above us.

We rolled a joint and walked back into the woods, where there was a wide creek and dunes so tall you could sit on the peak under a tree and stare straight down into the water, a solid emerald green. The emerald was so brilliant it almost seems strange, I asked, how can the water be this green? Chugging beers and passing the joint, we stood in the cold sand under the trees, a breeze teasing through the branches and through our wet hair.

But we had to return to the cave. The cave is our home. I crawled back into the icy reaches of our little apartment at the bottom of the hill, at the bottom of the fishbowl.

I’ve been working online. Pattering away at the keyboard at record speeds, selling products and making listicles for small fees, focusing on word count for hours and hours on end, playlists looping in the background and the brilliance of day trying to reach through the tapestry.

When the cool air of the apartment dries my sinuses and makes me pace, I make a cup of tea and turn on some resonant ambient music that floods the apartment. All this time, all this down time, allows me to toss over brittle old questions, prod them from a detached and neutral point of view. Where does my depression come from? What about my anxiety? I’m neurotypical, prone to anxiety, and when I fail to control it, which happens, my stress levels rise and perhaps there’s an autoimmune response. Perhaps when I’m clinging to the floor and imagining crushing my head under a cement block, it’s symptomatic of an illness, my poor lethargic body attacked by stress and my immune system doing only what it knows best and kicking into gear so hard that it leaves me a sick dog crawling on the floor.

Maybe my brain is inflamed.

I toss this question around under the ambient sounds and the buzz of the air conditioner until my mind is blank. After hours of taking huge purposeful breaths, I become empty and whole simultaneously. I am okay. This uneventful alone time involves me sharpening my knives, to fend off bad thoughts in the future. I am equipping myself to help myself. It may appear like I am doing nothing, but my mind is never inactive.

In fact, my mind has developed its own insistent little non-sensible tune about how this city is evil. Realistically I know positive framing will do me better than giving into weird fancies, and I tell myself that just because this city is squished into the hills with blankets of heat slapped over it, and even though it takes hours to even leave the evil circumference surrounding the rivers, this city cannot be evil.

There’s really no such thing.

I am safe inside a cave inside a fishbowl. I don’t need to properly emerge until September.

fishbowl

I have a friend who has always been an excellent source for a thoughtful answer, and I asked him once what would be the best textual resource if I wanted to learn more about Zen Buddhism—not the history, but just pure philosophy. We went to a bookstore and looked through the books together; eventually we found this book and decided it was the best one to buy. I’ve read it several times since, and it’s always been a great resource for correcting thought patterns that had gone awry and begun to fuck up my well-being.

Here are some of the passages I find the most helpful, in terms of keeping a clear and aware mind. I try to remember them, and use them to make my life just a little bit easier when possible.


‘You may say, “I must do something this afternoon,” but actually there is no “this afternoon.” We do things one after the other. That is all. There is no such time as “this afternoon” or “one o’clock” or “two o’clock.” At one o’clock you will eat your lunch. To eat lunch is itself one o’clock. You will be somewhere, but that place cannot be separated from one o’clock. For someone who actually appreciates out life, they are the same. But when we become tired of our life we may say, “I shouldn’t have come to this place. It may have been much better to have gone to some other place for lunch. This place is not so good.” In your mind you create an idea of place separate from an actual time… All that we should do is just do something as it comes. Do something! Whatever it is, we should do it, even if it is not-doing something. We should live in this moment. So when we sit we concentrate on our breathing, and we become a swinging door, and we do something we should do, something we must do.’


‘Even though you try to put people under some control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.’


‘We say, “Pulling out the weeds we give nourishment to the plant.” We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment. So even though you have some difficulty in your practice, even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those waves themselves will help you. So you should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice.’


‘Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in activity itself. We say, “It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, it is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness.”‘


‘To cook, or to fix some food, is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice. It is necessary to sit in zazen, in this way, but sitting is not our only way. Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.’


‘When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it. That is one danger when you listen to someone. The other danger is to be caught by the statement. If you do not understand your master’s statement in its true sense, you will easily be caught by something which is involved in your subjective opinion, or by some particular way the statement is expressed. You will take what he says only as a statement, without understanding the spirit behind the words.’


 

Full text can be found here.

 

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