Why (and What) I Read

Until a couple years ago, I read almost exclusively fiction. I read for pleasure and to pass the time, to embark on an adventure to worlds I would never inhabit. I love historical fiction (i.e. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks) and just about anything with a hint of magic (i.e. JK Rowling, Haruki Murakami, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline). I love exploring other worlds, people, places, times. I love feeling part of something that I’m not, something I will never see.

Losing track of time in a good book is an escapist behavior, one that always leaves me feeling more whole than I did when I started. There’s beauty in the pages of books; beauty, truth, and perspective on what does or does not matter. I’ve reread some of my favorite books dozens of times, particularly in times of difficulty, great upheaval, and challenging emotions. When the real world is too painful, it’s comforting to curl up with a world that I know and an ending I can trust.

But in more recent years, beginning around the time I finished my Master’s degree, I found myself greatly interested in nonfiction. My nonfiction reading had previously been course texts and research articles, some of which were terribly interesting. (Others . . . not so much.) When I finished grad school, I realized that I missed the reading that made my brain work a little harder. I missed reading that forced me to draw connections between what I knew from personal experience, empirical evidence, and prior reading. I missed learning new things and drawing more nuanced conclusions about how and why the world works the way it does. So I started picking up more nonfiction, which was initially daunting because of how much there is to read! I discovered that I enjoyed biology and neuroscience more than I had in school, was less enthralled than I used to be with historical tomes, and gravitated towards texts that explained people and ideas rather than places and things. (And yes, I understand that people, ideas, places, and things are related and not mutually exclusive.)

And what I found in that world of nonfiction has had an impact on my thinking, interactions with others, eating, daily routines, career and personal goals, and hopes and dreams. The nonfiction I’ve read especially in the last two years has provided me with knowledge, data, and facts that inform my observations of the world. It has helped me make sense of the patterns, incongruities, and possibilities that I see, seek out, and question.

Reading nonfiction has made me more eager to ask questions because I am constantly humbled by how much I don’t know. It has made me willing to admit ignorance and then prompted me to seek out answers. This path is very much a rabbit hole and I continue to find more twists and turns than I expect. I feel a swell of pride when I recognize studies cited in multiple books because I’ve read those studies and the books that explain them. There’s a little bubble of delight that comes from familiarity with an incestuous family of academics who have all the dysfunctional tendencies of most biological families.

My students often ask me why I know everything, which couldn’t be any less true. I tell them that I’ve just lived longer than they have. I tell them that I read a lot. I tell them what I’m reading. I tell them when I don’t know an answer and I tell them when I find out that answer. I answer their questions with a level of detail that is probably over their heads, but I hope the details prompt more questions. That’s how it is for me. When ideas are challenging, I find myself slowing down, looking up more words, spending more time clicking my way through Wikipedia hyperlinks and Amazon recommendations, finding more podcasts to listen to and blogs to follow. Encountering challenging ideas reminds me that there’s so much more out there and encourages me to continue exploring.  

So, since we’re somehow halfway through 2017, I thought I’d put together a list of what I’ve read so far this year. The books are listed in order of most recently finished. The five with asterisks and authors in red are the most important books I’ve read so far in 2017. Those with asterisks and authors in purple are fiction, still my greatest escape from the world. Have a look. Maybe you’ll find your next favorite! 

***Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach
***Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools – Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker
Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education – John Dewey
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – Timothy Snyder
Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education – Martha C. Nussbaum
***Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
The Courage to Be – Paul Tillich
***2BR02B – Kurt Vonnegut
Moving Toward Global Compassion – Paul Ekman
Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs – Henry Carroll
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race – Margot Lee Shetterly
Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life – Susan A. David
The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction – Mark Lilla
Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies – Nick Bostrom
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries – Kory Stamper
***The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever – Christopher Hitchens
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life – Dacher Keltner
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari
***The Nun’s Story – Kathryn Hulme
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them – Joshua D. Greene
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi
***Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society – Thich Nhat Hanh
Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
***Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education – Nel Noddings
Simone Weil: An Anthology – Simone Weil
The Wisdom of Insecurity – Alan W. Watts
***The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – Steven Pinker
The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays – Henry G. Frankfurt
***How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place – Bjørn Lomborg
***World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students – Yong Zhao
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy – Francis Fukuyama
The Hero Handbook – Nate Green

I’m currently in the middle of a novel, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, a neuroscience book by Robert Sapolsky. Both are rather long and having been taking me some time to read, but I’m enjoying them very much.

If none of the above inspire you, my 2016 reading list is here for your perusal. You can also follow me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading as the year continues. Click on bookshelves and take a look! Happy reading!

Julian

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