Road-trip audiobooks


This is a good week to load up an audiobook or three for road-tripping.

I just added SPQR and Stumbling on Happiness to my Audible queue.

SPQR is Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, and it’s gotten strong reviews. And I can’t seem to get enough of Roman history.

Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness has been on my wish list for a while.

Audiobooks can pick up the slack when I’m finding it hard to squeeze in all that I want to read.

I also downloaded a couple of favorite audiobooks to listen to again: Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing and Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. Both are excellent, and both are read by the authors. You can’t go wrong with either if you want a good listen.

And I just saw that the whole Harry Potter series is now available on Audible. (It previously had been available only through J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore web site.) This audio series has been acclaimed not just for the phenomenon that Harry Potter is, but for the performance of the narrator, Jim Dale. Maybe this will give my kids a nice change of pace from playing games and watching movies on iPads in the car.

If hours-long books seem daunting, listen to podcasts instead. We are in a golden age of podcasting. There are so many amazing choices. Start with the Overcast podcast app, and use its recommendation feature if you don’t know where to start. Or ask me, and I can send you a long list of great podcasts.

Feed your mind and your imagination as you’re traveling this week. Happy travels. Happy listening.

Sampling books

I typically have at least two books or more in play at any time. Right now it’s Sapiens, a “history of humankind”, and the sci-fi novel Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. 

But I can’t resist adding to my reading list. E-books make it easy to try samples of books before buying. 

Here’s what’s on my to-consider-next list for books:


Philosophy, a memoir, historical fiction, something about training a hawk, what appears to be THE definitive account of The Beatles, and an epic biography. 

It’s a delight to ponder what might be next in capturing my attention and inspiring new thoughts and different ways of understanding. 

Keep your reading fresh and varied. And just keep reading. 

Fiction as fuel for the imagination

Author Neil Gaiman from his lecture on the power of books and libraries:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And he closes with this reference to Einstein:

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

Humans of Earth

I’ve started two new books this week – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and Seveneves, a new novel by Neal Stephenson.

I like to balance non-fiction and fiction, usually reading a novel at night and the non-fiction earlier in the day. Non-fiction tends to spark ideas, and I don’t need that right before going to sleep.

These two new books I’m reading make for a particularly interesting balance of ideas. Sapiens is a surprisingly readable and fascinating history of the origins of our species. While Seveneves is a novel about the near future and the end of the world as we know it and how humans adapt and persist through a cataclysm.

I’m appreciating even more what good fortune it is to be a human on this planet in this time. The triumph of our species was not inevitable, and there’s no guarantee we are not going to screw things up epically.

On a cosmic scale our time in the sun has been incredibly brief. Dinosaurs roamed the earth significantly longer than we have so far. 

Knowing where we came from can make us better appreciate what we have now and just where we might go from here. 

On Writing Well, on living well

The author William Zinsser died recently, and his obituary in the New York Times prompted me to start reading his highly acclaimed book, On Writing Well. The book had been recommended by several writers I respect, including John Gruber of my favorite Apple web site, Daring Fireball.

The book begins with a firm exhortation to simplify:

“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.”

I’m two chapters in to Zinsser’s book and already more aware of how sloppy my writing is. I just went back to the post I wrote yesterday and trimmed a few unnecessary words.

Writing should serve a purpose, and anything that detracts from that purpose should be eliminated. Simplify. Do less, better.

This is good advice for writing, but it applies well to living, too.

Consider the passage above with these changes:

“Look for the clutter in your life and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine every thing (or commitment or relationship) you put in your life. Is every thing doing new (or meaningful) work? Can any task be done with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something (or someone) useless just because you think it’s (or he’s/she’s) beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.”

Current reading list

I’m currently switching between Natural Born Heroes and James Michener’s Hawaii

Michener’s novel is such an epic, and I’m only 75 percent through it after weeks of light reading. But it holds up and keeps pulling me through it. 

Next up in non-fiction after Natural Born Heroes will be Greg McKeown’s  Essentialism. And my next novel will be Neal Stephenson’s latest, Seveneves, which just released tonight. 

I continue to enjoy balancing non-fiction and fiction, usually saving the novel for night time reading and working through the non-fiction at lunch. 

Sunday morning Stoic: Only the present

A crisp, bright, quiet spring Sunday morning.

A cup of tea (coconut) and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

A Sunday morning ritual for me.

It’s hard to open this book without reading a passage that delights or challenges and refreshes my mind with its clarity and straightforward insight.

This passage today, 8.35:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that … well, then, heap shame upon it.”

Only the present.