I usually don’t read memoirs–mostly because they feel self-absorbed to me. There are few things more self-involved than writing an entire book about yourself. I suppose I gravitate toward fiction because the author’s voice can be couched in characters’ voices.
But occasionally I find a memoir that’s every bit as good as fiction: Education is one of them. Not only is the writing excellent, the story itself is bonkers. Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho to a mentally ill father with delusions of grandeur and a mother whose primary household function was enabling physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.
In spite of a childhood with no formal education–and very little informal education–Westover finds a way to go to Brigham Young University. After graduation, she studies at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually earning a PhD. She does all of this in spite of her family who are determined to keep her from learning and growing as a person.
I do think the end is weaker than the beginning. The last few chapters feel a bit empty as Westover navigates a bizarre and neverending family fight. I felt like something must have been missing because I couldn’t figure out the motivations of her parents or siblings. It was like a big piece was missing that would explain how they all ended up where they were. I also wondered a lot about money. How does one afford that kind of formal education? I barely manged to penny-pinch my way through state universities, even with fellowships, scholarships, and assistantships. (I also suspect I have an eighth of her brilliance, so there’s that.)
What I liked most about the book–aside from the extraordinary writing–was Westover’s ideas about education. I wanted to read more about how she evolved from a kid who had never read much of anything besides The Book of Mormon to a graduate student studying some of the greatest Western philosophers of all time. I would love to know if she thinks anyone can become educated as she did or if she recognizes how singular she is. And I’d love to know exactly which ideas really paved the way for her to break out of her family’s narrow world.
Westover is a significantly more forgiving and understanding person than I am. I know her father had a mental illness, but the entire family suffered from his paranoid illusions. Between the father’s obsession with the end times, her brother’s physical abuse, and a total lack of intervention from every other adult in her life, it’s a wonder that Westover can paint such a fair picture of her family members. My version would be a lot angrier.
Pick up the book for the beautiful writing. Stay for the incredible triumph.
I’ll read any book about habits. It’s my weird addictive genre-crack. So I finally picked up Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits from the library, and have some thoughts.
Let’s just start by saying that even a book about habits that I didn’t love is still worth it to me. As far as I’m concerned, any book about habits is a treasure.
As you can probably guess by that lead-in, I didn’t love this book. I did, however, learn some useful things from it. I’ll start there, and then I’ll tell you what turned me off.
1. Rubin uses a personality framework to talk about habits. She suggests that everyone (basically) falls into one of four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Your personality framework will largely determine how you develop, modify, keep, and break your habits.
Upholders are the Type-A people of the world. They do things just because you should. They never waver because they know what they ought to do and they just do it. I’m the child of two Upholders.
Questioners are the people who want verified research and data before they commit to anything. Questioners will question everything until they are completely satisfied that something is worth doing. I’m a Questioner, which is probably why I read habit books all the time. I’m married to a Questioner and together we ask questions all day long.
Obligers are accountable to external forces. They work best with clear rules and expectations, and they often value other people’s expectations more than their own. I have Obliger tendencies. I suspect many women do.
Rebels do whatever they want, depending on how they feel. They create habits if they want to. They break habits when they don’t work anymore. They basically are accountable to no one.
2. Once you know your personality framework, you can figure out the best way to develop your habits. As a Questioner, I need research first. If you are an Obliger, you need external accountability. If you are an Upholder, you just need to believe a habit is the right thing to do.
So all of that was quite interesting. Plus, I like Rubin’s writing style. It’s fun to take the journey with her as she learns about these ideas and applies them in her life. But here’s where I had some problems with this book.
A Questioner Questions
1. Rubin is an Upholder. Maybe because of that, she comes off as a very joyless person. Her life is so regimented and so filled with all the things she has to do that I ended up feeling kind of depressed reading about it. I kept hoping she’d sleep in until 6:30 some morning and then–I don’t know–watch TV in the middle of the day while eating Cheetos.
2. Rubin rarely breaks any of her rigid habits and insists that that makes her happy. It probably does. But because her framework isn’t mine, I had trouble seeing how anything she writes relates to me. By her own admission, everyone’s individual personal determines how we approach habits. And while she gave some suggestions for each framework, it was pretty clear this book is for Upholders like Rubin. Her “fall-off-the-wagon” moments were basically eating a raw, unsalted almond after 8:30 pm or failing to put a book back on the bookshelf.
3. I felt like Rubin had a pretty clear agenda here: She wanted this book to be an encomium to carb-free eating. After reading about her carb-free existence, I felt like I’d accidentally joined a cult. Rubin’s cupcake-eating sister and her candy-sneaking daughter felt way more relatable. I wanted to hang out with them. As a Questioner, I feel compelled to point out that Rubin’s research on carb-free eating isn’t as settled as she suggests.
4. The more interesting issue that Rubin implicitly raises, in my opinion, is one about why we are obsessed with “good” habits and what those mean. A lot of Rubin’s habits–and my own too–are basically things I think are good and right, but are actually at least partially part of the framework of capitalism and patriarchy.
For instance, we know that weight doesn’t predict healthiness (and vice versa), yet we all loudly announce just HOW GOOD we feel when we are thin. I mean, does your blood really feel better in your veins? Or do you feel better because your skinny shorts fit and that’s what the world expects? When we complete a bunch of tasks, we feel productive. But do those tasks matter? Or are we keeping busy because the world has said that busy little beavers are the best kind? I didn’t get the sense that Rubin cared much as long as she upheld. That’s what felt so joyless and depressing to me.
Still, I actually really liked Rubin’s writing, and I’d still recommend the book.
July was a good month for reading, in part because my hiking vacation was canceled (due to extreme heat, flooding, rock falls, and locusts).
(Just kidding, there were no locusts.)
(But the other stuff was real).
We did a home staycation instead, which turned out to be marvelous. There was much reading, napping, walking, and eating–all of my favorite things. And because I was on brain rest, I had the mental capacity to read some longer and more complicated books that I never seem to get to during the school year. In between the harder books, I indulged in some brain candy.
4 Published in 2018
3 Published in last five years
2 Published before 2013
Here are July’s superlatives:
Most Entertaining Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
I’d forgotten how much I like Sophie Kinsella’s standalone novels until I mentioned this one last week. I grabbed it from the library and re-read it. It’s not my favorite Kinsella, but it’s still funny and deeply entertaining in its ridiculousness.
My tagline: Three’s Company meets Neil Simon meets Are You Being Served?
I read my first Michael Shermer book on a 24-hour Greyhound bus ride from Oklahoma to North Dakota. It was basically the worst 24 hours of my life (second only to the return trip), but at least I had Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things to keep me company.
In The Moral Arc, Shermer argues that all of society’s biggest moral advancements (specifically in terms of human rights) sprang from the kind of logic- and reason-based arguments that marked the Enlightenment. It was that kind of thinking–with an emphasis on the inalienable rights of individuals–that helped us build morality. It’s an interesting response to the claim that religion has a monopoly on moral living.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most disturbing book I read in July was not the one about Nazis (though that was plenty disturbing). The one that gave me nightmares was The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. I debated quitting it multiple times and finally slogged through to the end. It’s not a bad book. It was just too much for me. I’m not a particularly squeamish reader, but the violence in this one was just too visceral and didn’t feel totally necessary.
I’ve been reading less this week than last, in part because I’m in the midst of a few large writing tasks. But I did finish two books: The Queen and I and The Last Mrs. Parrish. I liked certain things about both of them, but I have a couple of rants to make, especially about The Last Mrs. Parrish. A review is coming.
I started two more:
And received July’s Book-of-the-Month from my club of one member (me):
June was a lighter summer reading month for me because I went on vacation for ten days and didn’t do much reading at all during that time (save for plane reading). I did, however, read hard before I left town.
4 Published in 2018
3 Published in last five years
1 Published before 2013
Once again, I liked everything I read this month, but I do have superlatives:
Most Entertaining My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley
Stephen McCauley has long been one of my favorite authors. If Tom Perrotta, Jonathan Tropper, Anne Tyler, and David Sedaris had a baby, it would be Stephen McCauley.
While this one wasn’t my favorite McCauley (that honor goes to The Easy Way Out), it was just as funny and poignant and generous as everything McCauley writes.
Most Beautiful News of the World by Paulette Giles
I’ve been a fan of Paulette Jiles since Enemy Women. She’s a masterful writer of history. Every character feels honest; every event is rendered with care.
My tagline: Lonesome Dove meets Plainsong
Most Educational A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Futureby Charles Van Doren If you’ve ever spent any time thinking about why and how we think now, you really should read this one. Van Doren traces the history of thought from the Pre-Socratics to the late twentieth-century. What he shows is that what we can think–what we know–is largely dependent on the paradigm and standards of the historical time period. As he walks you through history, you get a sense of how knowledge changes. And you begin to see how all the pieces fit together.
Word of Warning: This was was written in the 90s and the last two chapters are hopelessly out of date. Van Doren’s predictions for computers is kind of unintentionally hilarious. And like any book written in a certain time period, his language is sometimes insensitive. I was particularly struck by the section where he calls people who contracted HIV in the ’80s through birth or blood transfusions “innocent,” implying that people who contracted the virus other ways are guilty. Given that the majority of those victims were gay, it’s a pretty egregious use of language.
I’d still recommend this book for armchair historians, especially if you have any interest in the history of science.
I read Charles Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, last year, and I loved it enough that I decided to use it for a class I’m teaching next semester. I ran across Duhigg’s latest book on the New Nonfiction shelf at my local library, and I read it in two days. Then I wished that I’d take more time with it. I’m definitely going to buy it because I’ll need to re-read it to really apply the lessons.
Books and articles about productivity are my absolute favorite nonfiction sub-genre. I can’t explain why, but I’ll read absolutely anything about productivity. Like, if you told me you wrote an article explaining how to increase production of flibbetynibbets at the flibbettynibbet factory in the city of Flula Forgunberg, I would be like, “I don’t know what those things are, but I must read your article immediately! Send it to me!”
Elevator Pitch Stop screwing around and get stuff done. But don’t just get any old stuff done. Get the right stuff done. And know the difference between busy (my resting state) and productive (my unicorn state).
Reasons to Read It
Engaging narratives. Duhigg is a master at finding a story about some person or case that perfectly illustrates the point of each chapter. He has a way of taking what could be really dry research and turning it into propulsive narratives that keep you turning the pages. I particularly like his technique of interspersing narrative with research to keep the chapters balanced.
Applicable recommendations. I’m productive at times, I guess. I mean, it’s all relative. I’m more productive than, say, a cat. But I’m certainly not a Charles Duhigg who writes incredible books while holding down a full-time job as a reporter. (Yeah, I write books and have a job, but I’m not nearly as good at either as Duhigg is.)
What I loved about each chapter of this book is that Duhigg provides clear, evidence-based strategies that anyone can emply to move away from busy and toward productive. From a very clear chapter on what makes teams successful (hint: It’s not at all what you’d expect) to techniques for being more innovative and creative, Duhigg demonstrates exactly how to meaningful engage in work. I particularly loved his appendixes where he showed how he applied these techniques himself.
Reasons to Give It the Side-Eye
No side-eye from me on this one, but I do have one quibble: There’s just so much to take away from the book that if you asked me to talk about how I am planning to apply all of these things in my daily life, I’d be overwhelmed. That’s not a flaw in the book, though. I think it’s just the nature of these kinds of books. They provide so much information, but it’s up to the reader/student to figure out how to make it work. Still, if Duhigg is taking suggestions, I’d love to read a follow-up book—a memoir—of sorts where he applies all of these things in everything he does all day long.
What I Learned (or Re-learned)
I have bad habits. Every time I read about focus, I’m reminded what terrible habits I have when it comes to focus. I regularly do 84 things at once. I keep multiple inboxes open while I’m working, along with at least one IM window. I frequently interrupt my thinking to answer texts and phone calls. And on top of that, I have an episode of Seinfeld running in the background right this very moment! I simultaneously have no idea why George is upset, nor what I intended to say in this sentence. I’m a walking recipe for disaster. Duhigg should use me as a cautionary tale.
This book, once again, reminded me that I’m never going to be particularly innovative or creative if I can’t learn to focus. And that chaotic jumping from task to task is precisely why I feel totally overwhelmed all the time.
Successful people say no. I really appreciated Duhigg’s anecdote about really successful people (like writer and surgeon Atul Gawande) who prioritize key projects and outcomes and then make decisions based on those goals. I say yes too much, which just means that my own outcomes get pushed to the bottom of the list. Or I end up doing them when I’m supposed to be resting or spending time with loved ones. I’m getting better, but Duhigg reminded me that prioritizing should be paramount in anyone’s life.
Teamwork is hard, but not impossible. I teach classes where collaboration is required. I’ve watched teams soar to success and I’ve watched teams implode. I’ve driven myself bananas trying to figure out how to “fix” failing teams and how to “bottle” the process of good teams. Duhigg presents the research that confirms an important point: Team norms are the determining criteria for success.
Of course! Of course it’s the team norms! But I never thought about that until reading this book. It doesn’t matter who is on the team (assuming that you don’t have a team of monkeys whom you want to writeHamlet, The Sequel). What matters is the way they agree to act on the team itself. They can all be buttholes in real life. That’s fine. They just have to act in a mutually agreeable way while on the team.
Know why you do things. I’m terrible about doing whatever task will allow me to check the greatest number of items off of my to-do list. I frequently fall prey to believing that’s a good use of my time. In reality, I send a lot of email and make a lot of calls that probably don’t lead to any strategic goals.
Once I started asking myself why I was doing certain things, I found that I frequently had no answer. I don’t know. I’m just doing it! Now I think carefully about what my end goals are and how the day-to-day tasks lead to those end goals. I’m not cured of my to-do-ness yet, but I’m getting better.
Worth Reading? Definitely. Buy it. You’ll want to write in the margins.
I love projects. I love productivity books. And I love the kind of “stunt journalism” that requires writers to do crazy things in the service of writing about it.
Elevator Pitch The opposite of lazy is not busy. In fact, lazy and busy are quite often synonymous states of being.
Reasons to Read It I loved that Bailey provided useful tips for productivity in every single chapter. I did some of the challenges he included at the end of each chapter, and I found them quite instructive.
Some reviewers on Goodreads felt that the information he provided was too simple; in contrast, I thought the simplicity of his suggestions made them all the more effective. He’s quite clear that being productive is not that hard. You just have to set goals that lead to bigger goals. But if it were simple, everyone would do it. The complex part is why we don’t just sit down and do it. And the reason for every person is different.
My reasons for not being as productive as I would like are pretty simple (and kind of embarrassing):
I conflate feeling chaotic and overwhelmed and constantly pulled in a million directions with feelings of accomplishment. That is, if I feel shattered at the end of the day, I feel like I accomplished something. That’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s often a damned dirty lie that I tell myself. Bailey reminded me that when you slow down, focus, and become more measured, your limbic system goes nuts. Your poor little brain feels underwhelmed. It searches for something flashy to stimulate it. And it tries to convince you that you must be very lazy because how else could you feel so calm? Using your attention and energy wisely is quite frankly such an unusual experience that we don’t know what to make of it. I assume that taking a break is for quitters. I’ve convinced myself that the best way to do anything is to power through it like a bulldozer, no matter how exhausted my brain is. Yeah, that’s totally wrong. And I know it’s wrong. Productivity is a marathon, not a sprint (though occasionally everyone needs to sprint). This book reminded me that prioritizing regular breaks with focused work sessions is good. It’s not being a wimp.
Ironically, I read the book while I was on vacation. When I started working again this week, I was far more productive than I have been in the past few weeks. The vacation helped me build up energy. And that energy helped me be more focused in my work. And that allowed me to finish things faster. I was tempted to work on vacation, but I didn’t. The experience showed me that I need regular work/writing holidays. My seven-day-a-week work habit is actually costing me time and valuable energy.
Finally, I really appreciated Bailey’s advice to prioritize personal goals, even if it means setting firm boundaries that other people won’t like. That’s something I’ve struggled with a lot at work. Recently I’ve noticed that my friends with kids are masterful at saying no because they simply have no choice. They have to be home at a certain time, so they can’t stay late for one more meeting. They have to watch kids at certain times of the day, so they can’t check in on email every five seconds. But guess what? They aren’t less productive than I am. They are often more productive. That’s because they have to meet their goals in specified and focused time periods. I just need to learn how to say, “Yeah, I can’t attend one more meeting. I have to go home and eat Fritos while I watch baby monkey videos.” But when I’m not doing that, I need to be focused and fully attentive in regular, measured, and short periods of intense work.
Reasons to Give It the Side-Eye
I know some reviewers scoffed at Bailey because his “conditions” for conducting and applying his productivity research were pretty cushy. He was a recent college grad with no kids and no major responsibilities outside of his productivity work. I understand that critique. I think Bailey gets it too.
I think maybe that’s part of his point: You have to balance your responsibilities with your personal and professional goals to accomplish what you want to get done. You just have to figure out what matters to you. If you have six kids—but you also want to design a model for cold fusion and write a novel in Russian—you are probably going to be able to devote less time, attention, and energy to either your kids or your cold fusion project. And obviously some people have far more resources to balance their lives.
But the critics’ points do stand: It’s easier to be productive when you are privileged.
Worth Reading? Yes, if only to be reminded that you are probably doing it wrong. After reading the book, I moved back to doing 20-minute writing sessions (followed by a 5-minute break) in 5 or 6 reps. I did more in 3 hours today than I did all of last week. And what I did is actually real stuff—not just fake to-do items. That alone is worth the time it took me to read the book.