In December of 2015, I decided I was going to work on several large-scale projects during 2016. They would be projects I would work on every single day, and they needed to be projects that wouldn't necessarily show results until the end of the year (perhaps not even for many years). I hoped that by picking several large-scale goals in this way, I could develop better personal discipline, and enjoy the projects not because of any immediate (or even future) rewards they might bring, but because I genuinely loved them and loved them because they were wonderful in themselves.
The first project I decided on was one that I was continuing: my independent self-study coursework. When I graduated and left academia, I decided I was going to keep learning the things I loved for the rest of my life. I made a comprehensive learning schedule for the next six years, created syllabi for the courses, and have been studying and learning new things (and revisiting old things with fresh eyes) every day ever since!
The second project I chose was to journal every single day. I didn't place any restrictions on what I needed to journal about, or how long the entry needed to be, or whether it needed to be well-written. I've been journaling every single day and it has been one of the best decisions I've ever made. Now, I've done a good deal of journaling in the past, but I never turned it into a discipline and forced myself to write even on the days that I had zero desire to do so.
The third project was to learn more about myself and develop stronger character. The way I've been approaching this is by making a list of fifty common virtues, vices, and various character traits, and then picking a new one each week, meditating on it, examining my heart, and figuring out whether or not I embody each virtue, vice, or trait. Once I understand where I stand regarding the virtue, vice, or trait in question, I figure out ways to develop it in my character. If it's a vice, I try to find situations in which I would normally act on that vice and work really, really damn hard to do the right thing.
The last big project I chose to work on was committing to read at least one book per week. I'd choose a new book every week on any topic I wanted to read about (even one I'd read many times before), would read it during my long commute to work, and would try to learn something new about myself and the universe from each book. I've been doing this all year (along with my other projects), and it has brought so much joy to my life. It's been an absurdly life-changing goal, and I'm going to carry it into every one of my future years - it's amazing how much you can learn just from picking up random books and letting them fill your mind!
Anyway, I've taken so many notes from my readings each month, and I want to share them here on my blog. I'm going to write up several posts about the books I've read each month so far, and then will write a new one at the end of each month in the future to share what I've been reading.
Note: these aren't the books I'm using for my independent studies, only the books I've been reading on my daily commute to work
1. Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt
For some reason, I decided to ring in the new year by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem - what a way to start off the year! Not only is this a profound, disturbing look at the weaknesses of various people (Eichmann in particular) that both allowed and caused the Holocaust to happen, it's a shocking indictment of human nature, a reminder that we needn't be evil geniuses, have an evil nature, or have evil intentions in order to be pure evil and/or harm others. This is a book I'll need to read again to fully process.
2. Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet
Oh my god this was wonderful. I love well-written plays, and Glengarry Glen Ross has to be one of the best I've ever read. It was disturbingly hilarious, and reminded me of some of the darker (and funnier) aspects of the business world. I didn't find much of myself in it, but I recognized new instantiations of things I've seen in the world around me, and that's something to find joy in.
3. The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea is so beautiful - it really is Hemingway at his finest. I felt like time stood still while I followed the old fisherman on his adventure to catch the giant fish. I sat on a smelly BART car and somehow could taste and smell the sea. I could feel the heat of the sun as it burned Santiago. I could feel my hands split as he fought the great fish. That's the magic of great books - they let you live another life, they let you have a new set of experiences - and that was the magic of Hemingway: each time I opened this book, I was swept away from the dirty, smelly, gross BART car and found myself on the sea, in the sun, chasing a giant marlin.
4. Letters to a Young Poet, by Rilke
Rilke has always been my favorite poet. I fell in love with him one day when I was a young teenager, combing the poetry section in a Barnes and Noble store in Mesa, Arizona and found The Selected Poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke. I read his famous Letters to a Young Poet shortly after, and it shaped the way that I thought about the biggest questions in life. Rilke urges the young poet he is writing to to "live the questions themselves", and I started to think about the biggest questions I had not in terms of finding answers, but living them, truly, really, living the questions.
I decided to re-read Rilke's famous letters this January. I was overjoyed to re-discover some of my favorite lines in his letters, that spoke to me now more than before, but I was very sad to discover that most of it didn't speak to me. It seemed written both for and by a much younger person than myself, someone who hadn't quite seen enough of the world to have a certain perspective. I kept thinking "speak to me, please speak to me", and realized that I'm not at the same place in my life where I was able to listen. It struck me as funny how much where we find ourselves in life affects what we get from a book, how much we are willing to listen to, how much of ourselves we are ready to make vulnerable. The conditions must be just right.
5. The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot
Even though The Waste Land is one of the classics, I'd never read it before and it has been on my reading list for many years. I never went to high school, so I missed out on reading all those great classic books that everyone takes for granted - this was one of them! I was not disappointed - this is a fucking masterpiece. I found myself laughing out loud on the BART train as I read it. The lines that stick in my brain all the time are these:
'My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad.
Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak.
What are you thinking of? What
I never know what you are thinking.
6. The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda
I have always loved Neruda, so I was excited to read The Book of Questions, but I was so confused when I read it the first time. I found a list of questions that seemed at first somewhat childish, questions whose answers we take for granted. After reading it the first time, I felt like I had missed something, so I read it again. I had to stop and let myself ask Neruda's questions without judging them, without jumping to answers, without dismissing them - once I was able to do this, I was blown away by its insights and its brilliance. It is filled with the questions we never ask ourselves, the questions that we try to avoid asking ourselves, the questions that may never be answered - questions like "Am I sometimes evil, or am I always good?" It's a book I'll be revisiting again and again and again throughout my life. I can't wait to read it again!