I’ve been on tour across Australia/New Zealand for the last six weeks. During this time I read a lot. Here’s some thoughts.
I consume ridiculous amounts of information. Life is a constant stream of stuff coming in: emails, social media, websites I frequent, books, music, conversations. Everything constantly streams in and I find myself, sitting here in a muddied lake of my own making, trying to sift out the important threads.
In an effort to reduce the amount of useless information I consume, I’ve installed a little Chrome app on my computer that eliminates my Facebook feed (and replaces it with an inspirational quote, some of which are good, most of which are bad). I’ve also stopped checking my notifications. I still browse Facebook everyday, its just nowhere near as interesting as it used to be. Here’s roughly what the experience looks like:
Anyway. I find I consume information in the same way that I achieve most things in life. In bulk and as fast as possible. I’m always the first person finished with a meal (something I attribute to growing up at boarding school. The first person to finish could get up for seconds and Tuesday lunch was burgers with a limit of two per person, so we’d madly finish our meals and scramble back to the end of the line in the hope that we could get another two). I tackle projects voraciously, knowing that the more I can finish in one big session, the less I have to do later. My initial attack is always massive bites. The follow-up is little nibbles as I lose interest, slowly petering to nothing. I really need a ‘finisher’, someone who’ll take everything I do and edit the final form so it makes sense. This could apply to my songwriting, cooking meals, work-out routines, general conversations etc.
I read in the same way that I eat. Compulsively consume as fast as possible. Don’t reflect, don’t react, just consume. Which means I get through books ridiculously fast, but also means I often don’t get as much out of it as I could (like comparing a five-minute burger and chips with five courses of dabbed olive oil and single anchovies on a plate I guess).
To counteract this, I’ve started making notes on the books I read, mainly so I can reflect on the information I’m taking in, but also so I can remember what I’ve read in years to come (I occasionally find myself thinking plot points feel familiar, then realizing I’ve already read the book).
Over the last six weeks I read ten books. Here’s my thoughts on some of my favourites. Also if you don’t like having plots ruined, don’t read this post, but watch Tim Minchin instead..
The Lesser Bohemians (Eimear McBride)
Seriously amazing. Mcbride writes with a sort of broken prose. 75% of the book is written in this heavy stream of consciousness, words left out, sentences not resolving sort of style that starts out as a slog to read (I found myself actually dwelling on each sentence as it goes past). Then about two thirds of the way through the book the main male character does a 60-page monologue in straight hard-hitting sentences, full grammar, syntax complete.
It’s a brutally heavy book, the plot has some amazing twists and I careened through the whole book in less than 24 hours in a field on top of a mountain in New Zealand. I fluctuated wildly between heady optimism for the characters followed by immediate dense depression and despair. This is the kind of book that feels like it was written about real people, but real people on the edge of my friendship group. These are the ‘others’ I hear friends talk about and vaguely know but never have a strong relationship with.
At the heart of it, this book does a great job of reflecting the fragility and sheer trauma of romantic relationships. With a little shock value and a heart-rending story to boot.
Do The Work (Steven Pressfield)
I loved aspects of this. Basically Pressfield got asked to write a book on how to beat all the things that trouble ‘creatives’ (procrastination, self-doubt etc), and he came out with this. Its kind of an off-shoot of his other book ‘The War of Art’ which I haven’t read but is on my list for the future.
I hate the ‘self-help’ style of writing. Its very ‘do this, do that, have a good life’ kind of writing. but some of the ideas really stick out. He suggests trying to condense an entire work (song, novel, screenplay) into a single page as a way to map things out. If it doesn’t fit on one page, its too much (which is fine for a song but tough for a long form work right?). It makes you stick to just the bare bones. One thing I don’t often do is sketch out songs prior to writing them, so it might be an interesting exercise to go ‘this song is THIS thing, here’s where it starts, here’s what I’m trying to portray etc’ and see how that feels as a creative activity. He also talks about trying to explain your work/project to someone in thirty seconds (think elevator pitch) which is something I and most musicians I know struggle with… ‘So what sort of music do you play?’ Gah.
A lot of this book is based around how to get off your arse and get started which I don’t often have a problem with, but I’ve pulled ideas out that I’ll come back to in the future and if you find yourself struggling creatively it might help.
Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)
So I read a lot through an app on my phone. The particular app I have been using (Kobo) has this terrible bug where every so often it resets and you lose everything: all your books, the saved progress section and worst of all the saved notes. As I read I highlight sections and put notes to myself so I can quickly refresh what a book or section was about. Anyway, my damned app reset just after I read this book and all my meaningful quotes and notes are kaput.
That said, here’s a couple of takeaways. Frankl lived through WWII in Auschwitz, and through that experience formulated a strong personal theory on what gives humans meaning. There’s three aspects (creating something, experiencing something and the attitude we take towards what happens to us). He goes on to say that the third is probably the most important as its something no-one else can take away from us. This vaguely ties in with some of the readings I’ve been doing on Stoicism (thanks Seneca).
Some of his stories about Auschwitz resonated heavily with Behrouz Boochani’s book (No Friend But The Mountain), which I read last year. Some devastatingly interesting parallels arise, with Frankl talking about how the concentration camps were designed to break human spirit: names are stripped away and all prisoners are given numbers, something which happened also on Manus Island. Boochani’s book dwells on a ‘kyriarchal system’ used on Manus to oppress and dehumanise prisoners, I wonder if anyone has done a comparison with Frankl’s work?
The second half of the book is a dive into Frankl’s ideas on Psychotherapy (which he formalizes as ‘Logotherapy). I took scattered ideas from it, but I feel like some of it had aged poorly (for a book on the workings of the mind written some seventy years ago that’s fine right?). Also my notes have all disappeared and it’s a dense read, will try and tackle again some day.
Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie)
I was told I had to read this by my partner. Something to do with connections with my own life. Vague connections include a Pakistani-born family, religious connections reverberating through a lifetime and a childhood displaced by families uprooted and thrown to the other side of the world.
I really don’t want to spoil the plot or indeed the journey of reading it, so here’s my immediate scribbled thoughts from when I finished reading it:
“Gaaah. this is incredible. beautiful writing, an incredible plot line. twists and turns and genuinely one of the best endings to a story I’ve ever read. heartbreaking moments, some beautiful back story and a seamless arc. unexpected.”
And thus ends book club for the week. Nah seriously though, I’ll try to occasionally do a post like this. Interested to see if anyone else is reading the same books I’m reading. Interested to see if you’ve got book suggestions for me. The other books I read this month (and it’s a super eclectic mix) are: The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner) [very good], The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov) [wild but quite long, Russian fiction from the 1930s], The Planet on the Table (Kim Stanley Robinson) [some strong moments, I loved sci-fi as a child but am finding it harder to dive into these days], How To Be Good (Nick Hornby) [not as good as A Long Way Down, but still enjoyable, the ending disappoints], A Man of Two Worlds (Frank/Brian Herbert) [expected more from the author of Dune, but my assumption is Frank’s son Brian did most of the writing and it shows] and About Grace (Anthony Doerr) [author of All The Light We Cannot See, this is his first novel and the sheer volume of research he puts into his character’s backstories is inspiring]. I’m almost done with Creativity Inc, [the book by the guy who started Pixar] and I’ve just started Extreme Ownership, [a book about the US Navy SEALS which I’m finding problematic, BUT the lessons are probably still valid].
I promise I don’t normally read this much. I made a remark to a friend yesterday that I don’t allow myself to read when I’ve got other important stuff to do (booking gigs, practice, teaching etc) because I devote 100% of my time to the book until its completely finished. There was a three year period at uni where I basically didn’t read fiction because I knew I had a degree to complete. It’s a problem, but a good one to have I guess?
I’m going to have a lot less time to read over the next couple of months. I’ve got a tour to announce (this week), a video to release (also this week), and a bunch of shows to play.