I'm at my best when I'm reading, thinking and pushing myself. There's nothing more important than teaching literacy - the ability to read and write at advanced levels - and one way we all get better is (shock) by reading and writing. So I think it's important for me to share what I'm reading and what guides my work. In this Bookshelf section of my website, I am sharing my annotated bibliography of books that either guide my thinking, make me learn and wonder, and/or just simply entertain me.
What I’ve Read Recently
Over our Winter Break, I had the chance to get a lot of reading in! Though none of the books were explicitly on leadership or education, they were all highly entertaining and/or thought-provoking books. Here is what I read!
How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi (2019)
As the George Floyd protests rated in 2020, I made a commitment to read and learn more about how to address racism in our country. In terms of their impact on me, the two most influential books I read were this one and Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. The premise of Mr. Kendi's book is simple: Not being a racist is not enough. If you are going to be part of the change, you must be an antiracist. "What's the problem with being 'not racist'? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: 'I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.' But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of racist isn't 'not racist.' It is 'antiracist.'" The book then goes into how to be an antiracist. A few key takeaways, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. This is a book worth reading more than once.
I'll stop there. But there's more. I have work to do, and I know I'm not alone.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead (2019)
I "read" this book via an audiobook. I love audiobooks when I am traveling. I listened to this one as I drove up and back from visiting my son in Sacramento. It's a historical fiction book, but it is based on research and in my mind, highly believable. If it did not happen exactly this way, it was close. It's a story of a promising young African-American boy who is arrested and assigned to a reform school. This "school," based on the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, was really a prison full of torture, murder, profiteering, and flagrant law breaking, all right under the nose of the Florida state government. And they knew. This is a powerful book - it's sad, shocking, and in spite of the small rays of humanity and hope that sometimes appear, it beats me up that this is our country, 100 years after the Civil War.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)
I don’t know why I have not read this book until now. But Bryan Stevenson has been someone who’s been mentioned to me by several of my friends in the last six months, and there’s a movie coming out based on this book, so many forces conspired to have me read it. And why did I wait so long? It’s a story of Mr. Stevenson’s journey that has led him to be one of the great change agents of our time. Since leaving Harvard Law School, he has dedicated his life to helping those sentenced with the death penalty or juveniles sentenced to life without parole. His book is filled with many of his stories, some of which ended with success and the person being freed, and others with him watching the person die by injection or electrocution. It’s brutal and uplifting at the same time. His decades of work with the Equal Justice Initiative have taught him so much about the concepts of justice and mercy. This book will change you. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything by B.J. Fogg (2019)
This book has been mentioned in several articles I have been reading and so I thought it was worth a quick read. Dr. Fogg writes that in her research on forming habits: “There are only three things we can do that will create lasting change: have an epiphany, change our environment, or change our habits in tiny ways.” This book is about changing habits in tiny ways. And no way is too small. It reminds me when a friend of mine wanted to start doing triathlons. He was a decent runner and biker, but swimming terrified him. I gave him a workout schedule that began with him moving his arms in a swimming motion while taking a shower. He laughed, but you should have seen his smile when he came out of the ocean at his triathlon. That’s how small Dr. Fogg often starts things. Tiny changes help form new habits and keep us from being overwhelmed at the magnitude of change. One of my favorite sections was her advice to create a “swarm” of tiny ideas, then pick the ones from those that are most doable. We pick the ones that are not only easy to do, but actually have the greatest chance of success. It’s a quick read, it’s well thought out, and it might just make the difference.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020)
This was a majorly eye-opening book. To me, the key to the whole book is Wilkerson’s assertion that there have been three caste societies in our last 2,000 years. One is the Indian caste system that we all read about in our textbooks with the brahmin at the top and the untouchables at the bottom. The second is the mercifully short-lived Nazi reign, where Jews, Catholics, gays, and others were in a caste far below the Aryans. But the society that the Nazis studied to try to figure out how to codify a caste system was the segregation in the American south. Wilkerson believes that since 1619, we have developed a caste system in our United States with whites at the top and African Americans at the bottom that has not at all vanished. Her work is convincing, her research is stunning, and it made me look at our country in an entirely different way. When she was introduced by another academic, a former untouchable from India, at a conference on caste systems, the introducer said, “Young people. I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” Those who are in other caste systems get it. Our job is not just to rid our nation of racism. We have to demolish a 400-year-old caste system.
Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business by Chris Fenton (2020)
It’s always nice to gain insight on people you already know from a book that they write and publish. Chris and Jen Fenton live right here in Manhattan Beach, and it was great to read Chris’s description of American businesses trying to work in and with China over the past decade. Filled with personal anecdotes, this book describes how each of us find our way in the world through our successes and our failures. That alone is a great lesson for anyone starting their career, or at a point where they need to change their career. But it’s also fantastic insight into how China is dealing with capitalism, particularly when it comes to entertainment. Chris Fenton does an outstanding job of sharing his story, of showing the challenges he has faced throughout his life, and him talking about he believes we can make a difference in China and in any kind of global cooperation.
Some of the insights that I particularly appreciated: “There isn’t a Chinese citizen who has lived their whole life in China, born around or after June 4, 1989, who has seen the famous photo of the Chinese man staring down a PLA tank in the heart of Beijing.” If that is true, their form of censorship is completely working. That’s depressing. And on the power of commerce and commercial diplomacy could change the world, “One could argue that Big Macs and David Hasselhof have more to do with the end of the Cold War than an arsenal of nuclear weapons.” Chris Fenton has an easy-going writing style, a wealth of personal experience, and a lot of insightful, soul-bearing, and even fun stories along the way.
Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life … and Maybe the World by Admiral William H. McRaven (2017)
I’ll get to the title of the book later. This is written about the trials and travails of life. It’s about how life can kick you in the teeth, whether or not you deserve it. He writes about Naval SEAL training and the strength you need to get through that. SEAL training prepares our young men and women to be ready for the worst that could be inflicted upon them. He finds many ways to say this in the book, but a summary he writes is, “Of all the lessons I learned in SEAL training, this was the most important. Never quit.” He talks about that many times.
As for the making of the bed, he says it’s our routines in daily life that can get us through when times are particularly difficult. Even something as simple as starting each day with a success, such as making your bed, can give you a feeling of success in a day when you might not have much otherwise. Simple and profound. My new daily habit after reading this book is something my wife is quite thankful for, and that is, I do not leave the house in the morning until the kitchen is spotless from the night before. Dishwasher emptied, sink cleared, counters perfect, and then and only then am I off for the day with one success already under my belt. And, oh yeah, never quit.
Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection, by John E. Sarno, MD (2018)
My physical therapist, whom I have been seeing for lower back pain, recommended this book to me in my first visit with her. She indicated that since I don’t have disc problems, Dr. Sarno might provide input. And she recommended this book. When I came back to see her the next week, we had a discussion of the book. Basically, Dr. Sarno talks about the fact that unresolved emotions and/or stress can have a manifestation in a lack of oxygen that can lead to real pain. The pain has to be dealt with since they are real muscles that are having spasms or contractions, but he argues that one of the things that we have to deal with is the stress or other issues which may lead to that. I found the whole thing rather odd because my job is completely stress free! Actually, it made some sense. That being said, I choose to stay in my job, my job will have stressful moments, and 2020 has been one giant stressful moment, so I’m not sure what can be done about that right now. It is a quick read, and may be helpful for anyone who has back pain or other pains that could be associated with stress as they go forward. One thing he said that all of my different physical therapists have said to me is that getting back to continuing the activities that we love as quickly as possible is essential for your physical health. And looking at Dr. Sarno, it’s obviously important for our physical, mental, and emotional health as well. One last thing, stretch every day!
In This Land of Plenty: A Novel, by Mary Smathers (2020)
I did not read many works of fiction this year, but I'm so glad I read this one. I used to teach with Mary Smathers in the 1980's, and this is her first novel. It's a great story! Ms. Smathers ties the different Califiornia eras and different lives together beautifully, and her storytelling brilliantly brings to life periods of California history that most of us are only fairly familiar with. We all visit the California Missions, and we know some of the good and bad behind the missions, but her tales go so much deeper. The timing of her book is perfect, as we are living in the midst of a time when we are more ready than ever to face some of our shameful history. Ms. Smathers' research and writing captivated me, I found myself caring for several of the characters, and it was impossible for me to put her book down. Really, really good!
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Carlton Abrams (2016)
My Dad recommended this book (you will see that reference in many of the books on my pages, as he is a prolific reader!). I felt lucky just reading the words of these two amazing and gentle leaders and their quirky senses of humor, as I made my way through the book. It’s special. You are a fly on the wall in their conversations, you see their friendship and love and care for each other, and you get a glimpse into the amazing people that they are. There is a wonderful mixture of Buddhism and Christianity woven in throughout the book, with never even a hint of conflict between those two religions. So much of the book focuses on our pursuit of happiness, which they tend to believe is more materialistic, and the pursuit of joy, which they regard as central to our being. They agree that joy cannot be found through material and external sources, but has to come from the inside. It can come from meaningful friendships and the feeling you have for your friends and loved ones. “Ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.” Another quote I loved from Archbishop Tutu, “The goal is to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”
This is one of those books that I will read and re-read throughout the rest of my life. If you’ve read this bookshelf, you know that another book like that for me is The Power of Now. This is wisdom that you cannot read often enough, and it reminds us of what we should be aspiring towards.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny O’Dell (2020)
I forget how I came across this book. I believe it was from other reading I was doing where Jenny O’Dell’s work was mentioned. In reading the book, it reminded me of a photo where an elderly woman was leaning over a barrier watching and enjoying something spectacular while all of the younger people around her were looking at their phones as they were videotaping it. The caption was, “One of these people knows how to truly enjoy the moment.” This book is about how the apps on our phones and the social media companies are desperately seeking our attention, our clicks, our forwards, our likes, and anything else they can do to drive their revenues upward. Most of you know that I am a terrible social media person, and this book makes me think maybe I am a little smarter than most people think I am. It’s hard to resist the attention-seeking economy that’s out there. Following the outrageous headlines that we click. Seeing titillating stories that make us curious. Reading this book may give you or your teenage students something to think about as you deal with your phones. I think this is a runaway train, and I’m not sure what can be done about it. And maybe I’m just an old person whining about how the young generation doesn’t know how to do things right. But I do worry. I do believe there is a world right in front of us that many of us are missing because there’s something more interesting on our phones. Smelling the roses is not that bad of an idea. If you go back to my thoughts on Flow, you know that you’ll never find flow while looking at your phone. You can find it while you’re fully immersed in activities that are not trying to seek your attention, but are so overwhelming or beautiful or meaningful, that you can’t help but have all of your attention go towards that experience. That is a more noble objective.
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