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The Omnivorous Reader - November, 2019


The Omnivorous Reader

November 5 · Issue #12 · View online

Recommendations, reviews, and assorted digital flotsam and jetsam

Hi, all.
Here’s what I’ve been reading this month.
Why You’re Getting This: This reading list is going out to old and new friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. If you’re receiving this, I thought you might appreciate it.
Feel free to unsubscribe–obligatory reading is the worst.
If you know a fellow reader who might enjoy it, please forward it along!

Cliches, Self-Help, and Mindfulness
A bunch of things that I read and listened to this month have overlapping patterns and insights that weren’t immediately apparent to me, but are now starting to come into clearer focus.
I’ll warn you at the top that the next section was ultimately a deep dive into the self-help genre paired with guided mindfulness mediation. I know that discussing these topics can come across as banal or cliched–it’s actually the reason that this issue of The Omnivorous Reader was a few days late in coming out: I had written this section and didn’t want to send it out as it came across as trite when I reread it. These days, talking about your mindfulness practice seems sort of like talking about being a vegan or doing Crossfit.
But why is that? Why are discussions of certain topics automatically relegated as cliches–and, particularly, why are the things that are so immediate and vital the things that seem the most cliched of all?
Whenever I find myself asking these questions, I typically turn to David Foster Wallace, whose work has similarly become cliched to mention, perhaps because of his unabashed tendency to write on topics like these. (So even my answer is cliched–it seems like it’s cliches all the way down.)
Still, in talking about the cliched nature of the concept of “leadership” in his essay Up, Simba (which can be found in his collection Consider the Lobster) DFW reflects that “the weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact, he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.”
In the end, that’s been my experience with good self-help books and also with mindfulness–the topics themselves often provoke eye rolls, and to talk and think about them openly leaves you vulnerable to criticism. But if you can work through that and actually consider the ideas at play without the intellectual hedging of sarcasm and dismissal, the result can be profound.
At least, it was for me. So here we go…
Consciousness, Vulnerability, and Possibility
I started the month finally giving in to the urge to subscribe to Sam Harris’s meditation app, Waking Up. I’ve had an on and off meditation practice for years now, so it wasn’t immediately clear to me why it might be worth it to subscribe to these guided meditations, but I’m enormously glad that I did so. The app is great, with 50 days of guided meditation in addition to meditation talks and lessons on different aspects of cultivating a robust mindfulness practice. The guided meditations on meditating with your eyes open, focusing on the visual field behind closed eyes, and trying to locate the thinker of thoughts the moment they manifested were particularly new and enlightening.
The culmination of all of this guided practice was a focused awareness of consciousness being the arena where all of my life occurs through both thoughts and sense impressions (including that awareness of the basic fact that I’m conscious).
At the same time, I also finally gave Brene Brown a chance–while a number of people (most notably my wife) have recommended her writing to me, I could never get into it. I enjoyed her TEDx talk, of course, but I’ve abandoned Daring Greatly five or six times at this point.
Brene, herself, says that she writes out of necessity but she speaks because she loves it, so maybe it’s not so surprising that her audio books and recorded talks resonated so much more with me. Hearing her read her own work was tremendously powerful: I cruised through Rising Strong, and then listened to the recorded workshops The Power of Vulnerability and Men, Women, and Worthiness. It’s a provocative body of work that I highly recommend, particularly in the audio format.
One of Brene’s wonderful insights around trying to explain our own internal states to other people is starting off with the phrase “The story I’m telling myself is…” as in “The story I’m telling myself when you check your phone during our conversation is that what I’m saying isn’t interesting.” Just using that phrase in conversation with someone else has the weird effect of objectifying your own thinking, both to the other person and to yourself. It’s a little surprising how effective it can be.
The culmination of mainlining Brene Brown for a solid month was a hyperawareness to the stories I tell myself around worthiness and around the real challenge of showing up authentically, something that was actually heightened by the practice of mindfully viewing my own thoughts as simply another appearance in the arena of consciousness.
And sure, mindfulness is one of the “signposts” of the wholehearted that Brown talks about, but pairing the two was much more impactful than I expected. And the combination of the two was likely what primed me for The Art of Possibility.
The Art of Possibility is a wonderful book written by husband and wife team Rosamund and Benjamin Zander who put forward a number of “practices” to cultivate a more hopeful and joyous mindset. They posit that everything in life is an invention, so we might as well invent stories about our worlds that “support the life you envision for yourself.”
This third book, in particular, sounds a little cliched now that I see the description in writing. Maybe all of this does.
But it wasn’t–or, at least, not in an off-putting way. I had a physical copy of this but I also listened to the audiobook in the car. It was a great way to interface with nonfiction, actually: You listen it first in the car and then reread it again as you think about it.
Adding the cues from The Art of Possibility only served to highlight and reemphasize the recursive nature of consciousness and the importance of avoiding identifying with your negative thoughts. And reading it at the same time as I listened to Brene Brown and reinvigorated a mindfulness practice was particularly powerful.
Or at least that’s the story I’m telling myself.
Your milage may vary.
Joe Hill
I read a bunch of things by horror writer Joe Hill this month–he’s Stephen King’s son. There’s an introduction in his new book of short stories, Full Throttle, that talks about being a horror writer whose father is Stephen King. It’s a good little memoir, and a few of the short stories are good, too: Someone sets up a hunting blind in Narnia to shoot fauns in one of them, a Biker and his son try to outrun a big rig trying to mow them down on a desert highway in another. This was enough to convince me to reread his last book of novellas, Strange Weather, which was also fun.
I also read all of his graphic novel series Locke and Key, which won the Will Eisner award. It was…compelling. Very violent and pretty dark, but I think I enjoyed the series more than the Walking Dead, overall.
Joe Hill is a fun writer, and I have a lot more respect for him after reading that little memoir–nothing that I read blew me away, but it was enjoyable way to spend my time, nonetheless.
Work The Library Like A Pro
This will be a recurring section of the Omnivorous Reader going forward. Do yourself a favor and put your local library to work:
First, install the Chrome Library Extension–once it’s set up, a single click takes you from Amazon to the “Request Title” page of your library’s website. Since book-related hyperlinks inevitably take you to Amazon, you might as well click one more time and see whether you can check the book out for free.
Next, take two minutes to figure out how to make Interlibrary Loan requests on your library website: A few more clicks and you’ll be able to search and request books from the entire city or state.
Just to be clear, Interlibrary Loan requests are free of charge. That’s right: They’ll ship you the book you want for free and let you borrow it for free. About a third of the books I come across necessitate an interlibrary loan request. My local library is pretty good, but a statewide search nearly always finds me what I’m looking for. 
The Library Extension ensures budget isn’t a factor in reading the books you want to read; an Interlibrary Loan ensures you’re not limited by a local catalog. 
Finally, figure out what app your library uses to stream audiobooks and download it. Hoopla and RB Digital are two popular ones. There are lots of other features in the app, I guess, but free streaming audiobooks is all I’m interested in.
I love owning books, but I abandon them so frequently that it’s just not worth purchasing things until I know I’ll enjoy them. The library lets me do that.
The English Language is Bonkers
The "Opinion-Size-Age-Shape-Colour-Origin-Material-Purpose" Rule for Adjectives
I hope you’re all doing well and that you can find (or make) the time to read whichever of these books catches your interest–and I hope that you quickly abandon it if it turns out to be something that’s not for you. And if you know of a good book that you’d recommend, please pass it along.
Take care,
Chris Cunningham
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