What I’ve been reading and listening to

My spring and summer book and podcast consumption so far:

Books:

The Triumph of Christianity by Bart Ehrman – Good insight into how a small, outlier religion took over the Roman Empire in just four centuries.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle – Really good. The subtitle is “The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. The book is filled with great examples of organizations and teams that have crafted the kinds of culture that set them apart. The chapter on the San Antonio Spurs and Coach Popovich especially keeps coming to mind. I’m afraid the vast majority of organizations either make no effort to prioritize culture (which really just means prioritizing people), or they think they do but do it in a forced, inauthentic way, more as a means to an end rather than a meaningful end in itself.

The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot – A very deep dive into Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations by the foremost scholar on the subject.

Mastery by Robert Greene – I’m rereading this for a book club with the students I work with. It’s worthwhile just for the many vignettes of the lives and work of past masters.

11/22/63 by Stephen King – This is the first Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. It’s a wonderfully done time-travel story that completely pulled me in. It’s about a guy who goes back in time intending to prevent the JFK assassination, but it’s the side stories that make this so compelling.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle — A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Autuan, and The Farthest Shore – I do like an occasional fantasy novel, and these books were influential for an entire generation of writers. You can see where J.K. Rowling got some of her key ideas.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Light, fun, imaginative, and not as dark as I’d expected.

Next up: Circe by Madeline Miller

Audiobooks:

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – I learned a lot, but this is one where the actual book would have made more sense than the audiobook. So much of this book relies on seeing da Vinci’s creations. Isaacson goes into great detail on the nuances of his art, and it’s hard to fully appreciate it without seeing the art that’s included in the book

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen – Bruce reads this himself, and that takes this one up a notch. He made his name in rock and roll as a writer of songs rather than on his voice or his musicianship. And this book is poetic in many parts. It’s beautifully written. He also stood out as a compelling on-stage presence, a true star as a charismatic, high-energy frontman. That all comes across in this telling of his story.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe – This is Wolfe’s classic account of the beginnings of the U.S. space program. It’s a rollicking, hugely entertaining story told with a winking flair that really captures the courageous and often reckless vibe of those first astronauts. The actor Dennis Quaid reads this, or, more accurately, performs this, and shows the right stuff, himself, in delivering a compelling and fun story.

Rocket Men by Robert Kurson – I was on a NASA kick. This one is all about Apollo 8, which was a bold effort to get American astronauts to the moon before the Russians. This one mission flipped the space race and set up Apollo 11. Apollo 11 gets all the glory, but Apollo 8 is a much more dramatic story.

Next up, Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

Podcasts:

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – Episodes are few and far between because Carlin clearly puts so much research and planning into each one. His latest series on imperial Japan is off to a great start. So, so good.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History – Gladwell is killing it now that he’s started podcasting. This is a great format for his passionate and clever storytelling.

My reading routine is like this: First thing in the morning I sit down with a cup of tea and focus for around a half-hour on something heavier—non-fiction like Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Ehrman’s book on Christianity, and the Hadot book on Marcus Aurelius, for example.

At lunch I read something a bit lighter and often related to work, like Coyle’s book on organizational culture.

At night and on weekends I opt for fiction.

The audiobooks and podcasts fill my drive time and walks and yard work.

Books are important to me. Reading has shaped my life like few other activities. It’s too easy now to “read” the drivel that scrolls across our screens and think we’re accomplishing something. I have to make books a priority in my life and build routines around them to make sure reading time doesn’t got lost to the frivolous and empty distractions of 21st century life.

My recent reading

A8F08853-75D8-443D-84BF-13D060FF54CBI chipped away slowly (usually no more than 20 minutes a day in the morning while my kids were still asleep) at Steven Pinker’s 453-page long Enlightenment Now and finished it recently. It’s a thorough—and I do mean thorough—survey of the key measures of human well being. And his convincing conclusion, backed up by charts and graphs galore, is that humans have made remarkable progress over the last few centuries, and we are living in the best of times. The daily news and your social media feed may make you think otherwise, but life right now for most humans is better than it’s ever been.

As I closed the book each morning I did so with a bit of gratitude for the heroes who came before us and made the world a better, safer, gentler place. And I came away more optimistic about the future. If you need a potent dose of good news, get this book.

D82CB049-A71C-4CF7-82FB-0AC7F1A829D3I also finished the audiobook version of Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. At 42 hours, it occupied my dog walks and daily commute over a span of a few months. It started slowly, and Washington was not as endearing a personality as my favorite audiobook subjects from last year—Lincoln and Grant. But he grew on me as he grew into his role as the linchpin of the founding of the American republic.

Washington wasn’t the most brilliant military strategist, but he was courageous and heroically steadfast and inspired others by his charismatic presence. That he endured more than eight trying years outlasting the British army, often just barely keeping his army together and viable, is a greater military feat than any single battle he won.

And he was the indispensable man as the nation’s first president. His character and restraint set the standard for what a chief executive in a democratic republic could be.

He could be prickly and thin-skinned and vain. And though he wrote the emancipation of his own slaves into his will, he will always be tainted for what he didn’t do to move the nation away from slavery at its founding.

I toured his home, Mt. Vernon, shortly before I finished the book and took it in with a deep appreciation for what this one flawed but truly great man accomplished.

I typically have around three books going at any one time—non-fiction in the morning and at lunch, an audiobook for on the go, and a novel in the evening and on weekends.

E1FF8C29-45C3-449E-A009-FEF9A05F9787.jpegThe novel I most recently finished is The Three Body Problem, an award winning work of science fiction by Chinese author Cixin Liu. It’s a challenging read, especially in the early going, but it comes around to an intriguing concept. Imagine humans making contact with intelligent life far away in the galaxy. They’re coming, and they won’t come in peace. Some on Earth are throwing in their lot with the aliens, and others are preparing to resist an invasion that will be centuries in the future. This book is the first in a trilogy. I’ve got book two in my stack already.

Reading is a fundamental habit to build into your daily routine. Good books are transformational. Making deep reading a priority has made my days richer and more meaningful.

Tell less, ask more

A haiku from the author Michael Bungay Stanier summarizing his book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever:

“Tell less and ask more.

Your advice is not as good

As you think it is.”

I need to print this and put it in a frame on my desk always in sight when I’m talking to people in my office. I’m prone to jump straight to what I think are solutions or helpful stories.

“That reminds me of a story…”

I’m becoming that guy.

Default to listening, not talking. Sit out the awkward gaps in conversation and wait.

Ask, “What’s on your mind?” Then keep at it by following up with “And what else?”

Leadership and friendship and human connection of any sort are all better served by sincere efforts to understand instead of attempting to be understood.

On reading more books

C3F47516-592E-4CBC-B00A-4614A5E299C6

My wife and I got new furniture for our bedroom last year. Instead of a traditional night stand, I got a lovely round table that I envisioned as a home to the stack of books I’m actively reading or planning to read soon.

Unfortunately, my spacious bedside table is running out of space. I keep adding books to the now multiple stacks on my table. I’m adding books a lot faster than I’m reading books. And this has become a bit of a concern. It’s not that I’m adding books too fast, though I probably acquire books a bit recklessly. (My philosophy has always been to just get whatever books I’m interested in. No buyer’s remorse.) The problem, though, is I’m not reading at a satisfactory pace.

Sure, my life is relatively full. Family and work keep me on the go, and it seems like there’s not much time left over to sit quietly and read. But reading should be a priority for me. Books have been central to shaping my life. I know that reading challenging books propels me forward in ways that few other activities do.

My internet addled brain, though, has been trained like yours has for quick bursts of reading pleasure. There is immediate resistance to sticking with any kind of long form reading. And there are plenty of shiny objects on the various screens in my life luring me away with the promise of easy and instant reading gratification.

But, it’s a trap. (Insert Admiral Ackbar voice.) The majority of reading we do on devices—status updates from friends, tweets, superficial news articles—does not challenge or stretch our minds in any meaningful way. It puts you in kickback mode and encourages your brain to be passive rather than active. It’s empty calories for your brain.

I want to be intentional about making books an ongoing priority in my daily schedule.

I need a plan.

Recently, I’ve been reading first thing in the morning when I wake up. Even just thirty minutes of reading before I do anything else allows to me make real progress. I knocked out a short biography of Montaigne this way last month, and I’m almost halfway through Pinker’s hefty Enlightenment Now with most of the reading coming before 6:15 AM on weekdays.

I’ll get some reading done at lunch on a few days each week. And I used a quiet Saturday afternoon recently to make headway on a novel. (I try to keep one non-fiction book and one novel going at all times. Non-fiction in the morning and at lunch. The novel is usually my bedtime and weekend reading.)

The thing is, I get up about the same time in the morning as I always do. But instead of clicking through apps (my RSS feed reader, Tweetbot, and email) and wasting the brief quiet I have each morning, now I’m sitting at our dining room table and immediately opening my book to start reading.

Breakfast for my brain.

Early to rise, early to read. More books, more better. That’s the plan.

Things fall apart: The Second Law and the meaning of life

I keep coming back to this feature I read last year on the scientific term or concept that scholars think ought to be more widely known. Here’s the scientist Steven Pinker’s response explaining why more people should understand entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

(Pinker’s massive new book, Enlightenment Now, is about this very topic and explores in detail how much progress we have made in imposing order on a disorderly world.)

My layman’s mind doesn’t quite get the scientific nuances at play here. But I get that things in the universe fall apart (the stars are literally falling away from each other right now) and will continue to do so with only minuscule bits of resistance.

Those seemingly insignificant and likely futile efforts to “fight back the tide of entropy”, though, are our keys for living a meaningful life.

Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art calls that apparently malevolent force that pushes back against our efforts to grow and improve and create “the resistance”. But, maybe that force is just entropy, the natural inclination of the universe toward disorder. It’s our effort to overcome entropy and make progress against this relentless current pushing us toward chaos and decay that could instead be called “the resistance”. We are freedom fighters battling against an overwhelming tyranny.

It’s been too easy to believe that progress is inevitable, that humanity will just naturally grow smarter and gentler, because that’s what we’ve seemed to witness in general over the last couple of centuries.

But, progress is not the default. The default is disorder, not order, not improvement. Left on their own, things fall apart.

Organize your sock drawer on Sunday, and, without at least a little attention and effort, it’s likely to be a mess again by Friday. The lawn won’t stay mowed. Stop exercising and you’ll get weaker almost immediately.

The tide of entropy is relentless. Our very existence—all of biology, for that matter—is owed to fighting against that tide, to digging in and making something that will stand and endure long enough for the next wave of resistance to relieve us.

Progress, for individuals and for our species as a whole, depends on diligent, unrelenting striving, pushing against the natural default of disorder.

It’s all ultimately futile, I suppose, in the really big scheme of things. The sun will die its natural death eons from now. Our species will likely be long gone well before then. Even a mere two centuries into the future, who will remember your name or care that you lived?

But instead of sinking into despair about our fate, choose to rise with courage each day to go into battle and fight for meaning and truth and beauty while you can.

Individually, this should remind us to embrace discontent, to keep searching and stretching, and to be vigilant in our efforts to move our lives forward. Get stronger physically. Eat real food. Expose yourself more often to discomfort. Get off the well worn path regularly and venture into surprise and serendipity and uncharted territory.

Be intentional about building and strengthening the relationships in your life. Life is all about relationships. Especially don’t let what seem like good relationships that you value coast along untended. Everything falls apart without some tending.

And get busy making something with your life that will add value to others. Focus less on what you can get and more on what you can give. What can you contribute? Where can you give back? What unique contribution, no matter how small, can you offer in this noble effort to move humanity forward?

Build systems, habits, and routines into your life to stay ahead of the pull of entropy. Come up with a battle plan, of sorts, for taking on this challenge week by week and day by day.

The writer, Annie Dillard, was getting at just this:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Of course, don’t resist what already is. Accept reality as it is right now. But do resist the pull toward chaos that would otherwise define our existence.

I’ve shared this before, but a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, issues a fitting challenge:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

Putting up a fight is victory, no matter that we’re all going down eventually.

Engage with life. Be excellent. Shine while you can.

My favorite audiobooks of the past year

Listening to books became a more regular thing for me last year. I’ve got a monthly Audible subscription and download a new book each month. I favor biography and history for audiobooks. I’m not sure why, but I’m not as interested in listening to fiction. I would rather read it.

It does feel kind of like cheating to “read” books by listening to them. But the oral tradition of storytelling goes way back before the printed word ever existed. So, I’m treating my recent audiobooks obsession as getting back to our ancient roots sitting by a fire listening to the tribal storyteller.

Plus, it’s a very efficient way to consume more good books in an otherwise busy life. I listen as I drive and as I walk the dog and while doing work in the yard. Some of these books were such a delight that I was inclined to drive the long way or go slower or sit in the driveway for a few minutes to get to a natural break in the story.

And I wore my dog out while listening to the truly remarkable books on Lincoln and Grant I list below. “Come on, Mosley, let’s go for another long walk and hear how Mr. Lincoln wins the nomination for president…”

I was even extra enthusiastic about working in the yard: “Honey, I’m going to go outside and mow the lawn and learn how General Grant captured Vicksburg. See you in a couple of hours…”

Here are my favorite audiobooks from the past year:

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – So good! I was already on team Lincoln, my favorite person from history, but this book took my affection for him even higher. Goodwin (who wrote a couple of other great books I’ve enjoyed about the Kennedy family and the Roosevelts) makes a fairly familiar story come to new life by weaving in the stories of the key people around Mr. Lincoln. The narrator was excellent, and the story, though we all know how it ends, was so moving. Got a lump in my throat at his death. 41 hours of audiobook/history-nerd bliss.
  • American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald White – What a nice surprise. I knew very little about Grant other than what everyone knows about his military accomplishments and that his reputation seemed a bit sullied by his tenure in the White House. This book rocketed Grant up near the top of great Americans in my view. He was a leader of unparalleled character, steely determination, and endearing humility. He came practically out of nowhere to be the indispensable man in securing the Union’s victory in the Civil War. His leadership as President is underrated. He was ahead of his time in pressing for civil rights and opposing racism while standing up to the Ku Klux Klan. He had the misfortune of being surrounded by some unscrupulous friends and subordinates, though, who took advantage of his trust. The story of his race to write his memoirs to save his family from financial ruin while he was dying of throat cancer and spurred on by his friend Mark Twain… Remarkable. And those memoirs turned out to be one of the great pieces of autobiography in American literary history. (Also, the narrator for this audiobook was particularly good. A good narrator makes a big impact on the listening experience.)
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – A little bit of Roman history and philosophy inside the story of a Catholic Church bureaucrat from the Middle Ages who discovers a long lost and transformational manuscript.
  • The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen – I knew little about Darwin’s life before listening to this relatively short biography. It focuses mostly on the slow and careful approach he took to grasping his theory and then, finally, sharing it somewhat reluctantly with the world. Darwin comes across as a genuinely thoughtful and kind man who loved his wife and children dearly. His meticulous methods in his work allowed him to see patterns in nature that led to arguably the biggest breakthrough in the history of science.
  • SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard – This one starts slow in detailing what can be known about the founding of Rome and its early history. But it picks up steam in describing the Republic and the beginnings of the empire.

This one wasn’t a recent listen, but I can’t mention audiobooks without a plug for one of my favorites: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. Martin reads it himself and even plays the banjo between chapters in telling the story of his career as a stand-up comic. Aside from sheer entertainment, it’s worth a listen as a primer on what it takes to craft a great career.

Currently, I’m back and forth between two audiobooks: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls. The Washington biography was a slog early on. He’s not as endearing as Lincoln or Grant. But it’s picked up as the story moves into the Revolutionary War. I’m putting Thoreau on hold until I finish with Washington.

Reading has shaped my life more than any other habit. When I was frustrated at the lack of time I was making for books last year, turning to audiobooks salvaged my year as a reader. I still read traditional books and keep a novel on my nightstand. But getting more books into my life through audiobooks has been a delight.

The spectacular now

I’m reading Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now. He makes the compelling case that the world has never been better for humans than right now.

In, say, 200,000 years of human history we have never seen such low levels of violence, crime, war, disease, or famine.

In 1800, the average life expectancy was less than 40 and had been that or lower for millennia. These last two centuries have seen amazing breakthroughs that have given us dramatically longer lives and better quality of life as well.

If you just read the news or social media, you would think we’re doomed. The news business has a financial interest in keeping you worried and tuned in and clicking links.

But zoom out to take in the big picture and you will see we are very fortunate to be alive right now.

Sure there are challenges to confront and puzzles to figure out, but there is abundant cause for hope that we can keep trending up as a species.