A little late this month with the reading recommendations, but I’ve been on the road and away from my desk a lot.
I don’t have as many books this month as usual because I simply haven’t had time to read as much as I normally do. But I do have a handful along with a couple of great essays you can download.
The first book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story by Dan Harris. Now, I’ve got to start off by telling you I would never have found this book other than by a weird circumstance. A year or so ago, I had to make a quick stop in New York for a meeting while on my way somewhere else. While having lunch, I noticed a guy in a suit eating with a couple of other people in business attire. They all had the same copy of a book, so I surmised the guy was on a book tour, which, as it turns out, he was. Having been on a number of these myself, I was curious as to what book he was out promoting. I walked by the table on my way out and read the title. It was the book mentioned above, about which I knew nothing.
So, I looked it up on Amazon and discovered it was about learning to meditate. I had read all the articles on the benefits of meditation and had given it a number of tries. But could never seem to quiet my mind enough to actually achieve anything. I decided to purchase the book, which I did, but didn’t get the chance to read it till last month. Turns out the author and I are kindred spirits at least in how we considered meditation. Says he: “Meditation struck me as the distillation of everything that sucked hardest about the granola lifestyle.” Which was one of the reasons, I suppose, that I didn’t try harder. Because I felt the same way.
The author is a television journalist who had a bad meltdown on air: He describes it in detail and provides the YouTube address, so you can watch for yourself. He had gotten heavily into drugs and needed something to turn his life around. His book is an hilarious, but instructive, description of his journey down the road of mindfulness meditation in an effort to salvage his career and even his life. Thanks to his position as a journalist/reporter he could, and did, approach all the leading lights of the meditation world and picked their brains. Turns out that meditation — as I had myself discovered — is really hard. But by constant practice, the author was able to get it. He doesn’t make any extravagant claims, but does say he considers regular meditation to have made a 10 percent positive difference in his life. Which made it worthwhile for him, and doubtless would for me as well. And maybe for you, too. It’s a terrifically funny book without really trying to be. Or maybe it just is to me because I have a warped sense of humor. Highly recommended.
He perfectly describes my efforts to calm my own mind:
My favorite Buddhist catchphrase, however, was the one they used to describe the churning of the ego: “monkey mind.” I’ve always been a sucker for animal metaphors, and I thought this one was perfect. Our minds are like furry little gibbons: always agitated, never at rest.
Monkey mind. Makes me think of the Instant Gratification Monkey. Which brings me to one of the best essays (actually two) I’ve ever read on procrastination, a chronic condition I suffer from mightily. I’ve never read a better description.
If you, like me, are a procrastinator, both these essays will bore into you. You will see yourself to a tee. If you’re not a procrastinator, you’ll probably wonder what all the fuss is about. But read them nonetheless so you can better understand what wretched lives the rest of us lead. Really terrific essays. I have them both in my Read Repeatedly file.
It seems as if the whole world has gone nuts over the microbiota, the bugs that live on us and especially within us. There are ten times more of them than there are cells in our own bodies, so it does make sense that they play a role in what’s going on with us, since we’re all riding this same bus. I got a couple of pretty basic books just to get me started so that I would have a frame of reference before I started attacking the scientific literature. I wanted to see kind of what the settled issues were. Turns out nothing is really settled. But that doesn’t make the subject any less interesting.
The first book I read was Tim Spector’s The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat Dr. Spector is an academician from the UK who did many of the early twin studies on the influence of gut bacteria and all sorts of health conditions. Identical twins are identical genetically, so genetics can be pretty much removed from the equation. His research involves comparing the intestinal bacterial differences in identical twins suffering from different disorders. He presents much of his own research in his book along with that of a whole lot of others. It’s an easy book to read even for the scientifically disinclined. It has its good points and its bad, but overall I would recommend it. He provides a nice bibliography of papers, which has kept me busy. And he has a lot of insights based on his own work. But he has an annoying habit of accepting the most observational of data and calling it strong evidence when it confirms his own point of view while warning the reader about the skimpiness of the same evidence when applied to opposing viewpoints. Not always, but often enough to aggravate me. Still a book well worth reading. Just for the bibliography alone.
The second book on this subject was written by husband and wife PhDs who are also academics and work in the field. The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health is a summary of the work of Stanford researchers Justin and Erica Sonnenburg and their notions of what the microbiota is all about. Also an excellent bibliography. Well written and well worth reading. The authors are firmly in the camp of high fiber diets, and I’m not particularly. But I didn’t let that detract from the sum of the valuable information in the book.
Moving on to a more technical little book, I highly recommend Peter Atkins The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction. It’s a tiny book of a mere hundred pages, a pocket book really. But it is a wonderfully readable and comprehensive. If you do much reading and studying in the dietary field, you will doubtless come across many references to the various laws of thermodynamics, most of which are cited incorrectly. This little book will keep you from getting misinformed. But it is a technical (but highly readable) description, so if you quake in the face of a few equations, maybe this isn’t the book for you.
I’ve always maintained that rodents aren’t just furry little people, so, consequently, the research data we get from rodent studies doesn’t always apply to humans. And, as it turns out, rodent studies don’t always even apply to rodents. Why? Because the rodents purchased by research labs for about $5 apiece are not typical rodents. They are freaks. They are the couch potatoes of rodents. They are overfed on the worst of foods, so that comparing them to rodents in the wild is like comparing apples to oranges. Doing dietary studies on these freak rodents often gives misleading information. The second essay I promised you is about this effect, and is an excellent read.
I can’t remember how I did it, but I stumbled upon the story of Witold Pilecki (pronounced VEE-told Pe-LETS-ki) three or four years ago. I was stunned I had never heard of this guy and even more stunned that apparently no one else had heard of him either. Not even his own countrymen. I couldn’t believe there weren’t movies made about him. Take a look at his Wikipedia entry and you’ll see what I mean. Pilecki was a Polish soldier, landowner and member of the resistance when the Germans took over in 1939. When he heard about the goings on at a place called Auschwitz, not far from Krakow, he decided that the resistance needed to see what was going on there. So he basically got himself arrested by the Germans in the hope he would be imprisoned in the concentration camp, so he could scope the place out and report back what was really happening. He had no idea. And it almost cost him his life on numerous occasions.
A few weeks ago, I spent a day at Auschwitz, and let me tell you, it is a sobering experience. I had read a ton about the place, but that hadn’t prepared me for actually seeing an extermination camp up close and personal. I knew it was big, but I didn’t realize how big. And I hadn’t quite come to grips with the number of people who had perished there in such a system of unspeakable cruelty. Those who went through the selections and were deemed unfit for work left the place through the crematoria chimneys within about four hours of their arrival. The 30 percent who were fit for work lasted a bit longer. Males averaged about five months before they died of starvation or beatings or both. Women lasted an average of three months.
Pilecki essentially volunteered for this treatment, though I’m sure had he known, he probably never would have. No one in his right mind would. He got into the camp and was immediately attacked and beaten. But his mission was to figure out what was going on and transmit the info to those outside. He ended up staying in Auschwitz for two and a half years and setting up resistance cells within. His hope was that by transmitting information out, the Allies would realize what was going on and make efforts to liberate the camp. His various resistance cells would work from inside while the Allies were to come from the outside. At least that was his hope. But no one really believed what was happening. That other humans could actually do to their fellow men what was reported as routine behavior in Auschwitz. Finally, Pilecki realized he was making no headway from within the camp, so after two and half years, he escaped. He then tried to persuade the local Polish Home Army (AK) to attack the camp and free the inmates. His pleas fell on deaf ears, so he moved to AK High Command in Warsaw, where his pleas suffered the same fate. At the same time, Pilecki became a member of the deep anti-Soviet underground when the Poles realized the Red Army was headed in their direction. He fought with distinction in the 1944 Warsaw uprising, was taken prisoner by the Germans, and spent time in German POW camps. He joined the Polish Second Corps in Italy where he wrote his famous 1945 report that he delivered to the world about what was going on in Auschwitz, and presumably in other German extermination camps.
Unfortunately, when the Soviets took over Poland, they didn’t like Pilecki much more than the Germans did. They arrested him, accused him of spying and trying to mount an insurrection against the Polish communists. He was tortured and finally executed in the Mokotów Prison in Warsaw in 1948 at age 47.
When I knew I was going to Auschwitz, I hoped I could get a copy of his 1945 report, but none was to be had. At least not in English. When I got back, I tried searching online for a copy, and found the thing in Amazon of all places. Who knew? It had never occurred to me to even look there. The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery contains a brief bio of Pilecki, some historical notes of the era, tons of photos, a useful glossary, a chronology of events and the full version of his 1945 report. Everyone should read this report if only to understand the absolute brutality humans are capable of. We’re getting a taste of it from news reports of the latest outrages perpetrated by ISIS right now, but these same acts that are horrendous beyond belief when we read about them happened on a daily basis in Auschwitz. And though the Germans ran the place and perpetrated much of violence, as much or more was dealt out by Kapos, the prisoners, often Polish, who were put in charge. Dr. Victor Frankl, another Auschwitz survivor, in his book (another of my favorites) Man’s Search for Meaning mentions the same thing. He took more abuse from the Kapos than he did from the SS.
On a brighter note, I read a handful of novels over the past month, a few of them quite good. But this email has gone on forever, so I’ll plan to review some of them in next month’s installment.
Thanks for hanging in there if you’ve read this far.