5 Fascinating Nonfiction Books I Read in 2017

NOTE: I already did a post of the books published in 2017 that had the most profound effect on me. That post can be seen here. This one is about books I read in 2017, most of which weren’t published this year. The hyperlinks go to my GoodReads review of the respective book.

 

5.) Narconomics by Tom Wainwright: This is a look at how drug cartels have been drawing from the playbooks of successful multinational corporations to make their operations more efficient and profitable. It contains gripping journalism and–for an economics wonk such as myself–it hits the spot with regards to scholarly curiosity as well.

 

4.) The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: Neuroscience has been converging on a conclusion drawn by Buddhists long ago (though not necessarily sharing identical explanations /mechanisms) that the self is an illusion. Ananthaswamy considers the neuroscience of self by examining how nervous system ailments and injuries have challenged common explanations about what the self is based on what it feels to be a self. (e.g. Out-of-body experiences can be induced with electrodes. Some people deeply feel they are dead, or that they either have limbs that aren’t present or that limbs that are don’t belong to them.)

 

3.) The Way of the Iceman  by Wim Hof and Koen De Jong: Any book that can get one to start taking cold showers has to be pretty persuasive. Wim Hof is known for his cold endurance “stunts,” but his argument in this book is that anyone can do it and that there are health benefits to doing so. The authors report on the science of said benefits as well as offering a program to start one’s way on such a program.

 

2.) Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland: Slingerland brings a fresh look at the ancient Chinese concept of wu-wei (apparently pronounced “ooo-way.”) Wu-wei is variously translated as “actionless action” or “to do without doing,” and–while that may sound like meaningless bumper-sticker wisdom–it reflects a state of effortless action that requires an elusive but powerful state of mind.  Slingerland presents varied Taoist and Confucian approaches to the subject, but also relates the idea to modern ideas such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow.”

 

1.) How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman: A neuroscientist and a positive psychologist team up to explain the common routes to the enlightened states of mind described in both Eastern religious / spiritual traditions and the mystic branches of Western religions (i.e. Jewish Kabbalah, mystic Christian sects, and Sufi Islam,) as well as their scientific underpinnings.

BOOK REVIEW: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of TransformationHow Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book busted me over the head with some profound food for thought. I’d been skeptical of the notion of Enlightenment. [Note: the authors distinguish big-E Enlightenment as a permanent and substantial brain change, in contrast to the little-e enlightenment which is just a momentary epiphanies or insight—a number of which may precede the big-E Enlightenment.] It’s not that I disbelieved that some people had life-changing and / or perspective-changing experiences, but rather that such events represented permanent change. My skepticism was influenced by the many gurus who have been said to be Enlightened, but who behaved to all appearances like petty, materialistic douche-bags. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that these teachers achieved some momentary heightened state of consciousness during their youth, but—if they had—they clearly couldn’t maintain it under the pressure of being idolized. I’d, therefore, come to think that life is a perpetual struggle to try to be a better version of oneself, and backsliding can and will happen at any moment. This book, however, suggests there is a possibility for permanent brain changes. [Though Dalberg’s “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to still apply.]

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has made a career out of conducting brain imaging studies of people engaged in various spiritual, religious, and meditative activities. His co-author is a psychologist, Mark Robert Waldman, who works on applying neuroscientific understanding to positive psychology. In this book, the two examine what Enlightenment is from a neuroscientific standpoint and then try to cull the common features across a population of cases of Enlightenment / enlightenment. Discovering the common elements of Enlightenment is no easy task. While it seems everybody is theoretically capable of achieving Enlightenment, it also seems that the experience is different for everybody and the collection of systems (religious, spiritual, and secular) by which it’s pursued is vast. However, the authors present a five-step outline by which readers can prime themselves to achieve Enlightenment, and it can be personalized depending upon one’s beliefs (or lack thereof—Enlightenment occurs among agnostics and atheists as well as religious practitioners) and background.

The book consists of 12 chapters divided among three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 to 5) lays the groundwork for readers to understand what Enlightenment is, how it feels, how it’s experienced between people with radically varying belief (and disbelief) structures, and it presents a model of human awareness that is crucial to the later discussion. Part II (Ch. 6 to 9) considers what happens in the brain during various practices by which individuals advance towards Enlightenment. Concepts like unity, surrender, and belief are explored in detail. Part III (Ch. 10 to 12) describes the process by which readers can pursue Enlightenment for themselves. If one is inclined to chart one’s own path, versus adopting an existing program, one has all the insight and tools to begin constructing one’s personal method by the time this section is complete.

The book has graphics as necessary (e.g. brain diagrams) that largely consist of line diagrams. There is an appendix that consolidates tools and resources, and the book is annotated by chapter.

I found this book to be both interesting and potentially beneficial to readers who take it beyond a popular science book and into the realm of self-help. The authors do a great job of navigating the waters between religion and science. Obviously, they are scientists and are agnostic about that which cannot be proven, but they don’t question other people’s beliefs and–if anything–error on the side of being open-minded. Still, I suspect that there will be religious types offended by the very notion that all humans are biologically primed to achieve this heightened state. It should be pointed out that the book could be supremely useful for such individuals because it points out the need to engage in exercises to challenge one’s most closely held beliefs. (Those with less mental flexibility and capacity for tolerance seem to be less likely to achieve Enlightenment.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone trying to figure out how to be the ultimate version of oneself.

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Drunk, Narcissist, or Buddha: What Kind of Writer Are You?

IMG_0173I read a story in The Guardian the other day entitled “What drives writers to drink?”  It was actually an edited excerpt from a book by Olivia Laing entitled The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink.

I found this piece fascinating despite the fact that the title question seemed readily answered with another question, “In what other occupation must one regularly, repeatedly, and thoroughly get punched in the soul in order to succeed?” Writing is a personal act, and no piece of writing that is read escapes the assault of criticism, invited and uninvited, which ranges from sagacious to ridiculous.

One somehow has to find the courage to wade through what feels a lot like attacks on one’s intellectual self in order to discover what is useful and what is not. If one summarily rejects all criticism and advice, one will neither grow nor is one likely to be published. If one accepts all criticism as having merit, one may find a psychiatric ward in one’s future–and one is likely to remain unpublished. So the trick is to be able to answer the question, “What within this writing is genuinely bad?”

The problem is that it feels like the question is, “What about me is flawed?” It’s like holding a mirror up to the core of one’s being and noticing that you have some rot.

How do writers do this? There are probably innumerable approaches, but three common ones come to mind. The first is the one thoroughly addressed in Laing’s book; that is, some writers self-medicate. The article references a quote by Tennessee Williams, “…you felt as if a new kind of blood had been transfused into your arteries, a blood that swept away all anxiety and all tension for a while, and for a while is the stuff that dreams are made of.”

A second unhealthy approach is to reject any assertion that contradicts one’s perfection. In other words, be a narcissist. These are the writers who meet each and every piece of criticism with statements like, “you just don’t understand what I was trying to do there, my misspelling was actually a clever commentary on the zeitgeist of 20th century Armenia.”

The narcissists have the advantage not becoming clinically depressed by the constant rejection and criticism that is a life of writing. The downside is that they have to live in a world in which everyone else on the planet is ignorant and incapable of recognizing brilliance when it’s shining in their faces, and that is depressing in its own way. Only a few in this group manage to get published, and they do so through a combination of being truly great and, at least early on, being willing to tarnish their awesomeness by accepting some editorial suggestions.

The third approach is the one that we should all aspire to, but it’s a bitch getting there. In the title I used “Buddha” as a code word for the enlightened approach. What is the enlightened approach to dealing with rejection and criticism? First, one must realize that equating one’s writing and one’s self is illusory, and that criticism of one’s work isn’t criticism of self. Before any writer gets to the point of submitting works to agents, editors, or publishers someone along the line has told one that one’s writing is good. This fatal compliment causes one’s self-worth to become entangled in one’s writing.

Second, one must develop a confidence that isn’t rooted in external validation. In less pretentious words, one mustn’t feel it necessary to be loved by everyone with whom one comes into contact. This is hell if one’s entire life is writing. The value of published writing is inseparable from how it’s received. My only suggestion on this point is to find something else in one’s life that allows one to build self-confidence. For me, this has been martial arts. Sure there are usually rank tests, which are about validation from one’s teacher. However, what it really comes down is whether one experiences success in training and sparring. If one sees some success, the rank starts to be irrelevant to one’s confidence. I think outdoorsmanship is another such skill– for those less scared of bears than being beaten ugly with a stick. There are few activities in which other’s evaluation of one is ultimately irrelevant, but those are the activities with which one should seek to balance one’s writing.

If anyone needs me I’ll be guzzling Bourbon and contemplating how the publishing industry is run by poop-weasels.