Articles about life

300 Arguments – Sarah Manguso

Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages

That’s one of the “arguments”, which neatly describes the book. It’s easy to review a book like this: all I have to do is quote a few of the aphorisms.

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The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious – Paul Watzlawick

The situation is hopeless – but not serious.

I just love this phrase. It does seem true to me that it applies to many situations in life, big and small. Sometimes yes, the situation you are faced with is hopeless. But often, it doesn’t really matter that much. I find it helpful to remember that.

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How to Think — Alan Jacobs

I almost always find it faintly depressing reading comment threads on social media. They so often consist of two sides vigorously attacking imaginary strawman arguments from the other side. Nobody wins; everybody just ends up looking shrill and petty. I often start typing a response, but usually think better of wasting my time adding fuel to the fire. As Alan Jacobs says in this excellent book: “We have an inbuilt and powerful disposition towards dichotomising — but one that we don’t have to obey.” I have gotten better at not doing this, partly because I find it so dispiriting when reading comments from people who have eagerly retreated far into their corner so they can poke barbs at the “other” in their corner.

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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work — Alain de Botton

This book sees de Botton travelling on a commercial fishing vessel, shadowing an accountant for a day, and accompanying an aeronautical engineering team as they prepare and launch a rocket into space, among other adventures. He takes us through each assignment and uses them to muse on how human beings use their time, and why, and how we might do it better.

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12 Rules for Life — Jordan B. Peterson

This is fun to read and it may change your life. The subtitle describes it best: chaos (particularly perhaps the chaos of the modern world) is what Peterson dreads, and he offers prescriptions, strategies and even commandments for how to preserve an ordered and civilised life from the relentlessly pounding waves of entropy. And all presented using language that virtually demands to be read out loud. Each of the 12 homely “rules” is really just the starting point for a wide discussion of how life should best be lived. Peterson is a psychologist and a Christian, and those are the lenses through which he views the world. There is a lot about biblical history and teachings — a lot of it is presented as metaphor so it is still somewhat relevant even to non-Christian and even non-religious people. But still, there is a lot more bible-bashing than I was expecting, even from such a famously conservative figure. Each of the 12 chapters ends with a restatement of the rule as its last sentence. For some reason I find this irritating and twee. And I normally like tweeness. Continue reading
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On Looking — Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking

To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.
— John Burroughs

It’s amazing what you can see if you actually look at things you’ve seen a hundred times before. Alexandra Horowitz, like most of us, has wandered city sidewalks many times, but usually without really paying attention to her surroundings. So for this book she went on a series of local walks with various experts, including a town planner, an audio engineer, a blind person, a toddler, and a dog. Each chapter describes the result as she looks at her familiar environment through a different lens.

This reminds me of walking with my own kids when they were very young: a five-minute stroll could easily take an hour. The world is such an interesting place if you actually stop and look. This book will inspire you to do just that.

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The Ant and the Ferrari — Kerry Spackman

The Ant and the FerrariThis is a readable, impassioned book about the big questions in life. Spackman explains the big bang and evolution in a very accessible way, probably the best such explanations I have ever seen. He explains how science conflicts with religion on these and other topics, but he does so in a much nicer way than the likes of Richard Dawkins or especially Christopher Hitchens. I could imagine that a religious fundamentalist could read this book and actually understand why so many people are convinced that Genesis is all just made up. It’s hard to imagine any such person getting much out of, say, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great other than the impulse to burn it.

Spackman meditates thoughtfully on the meaning of life before offering a few suggestions on improving our individual lives, and society in general. I really like his ideas — they could plant the seeds for big changes for the better. I could imagine some of them being implemented by enlightened governments in a few decades. The chances of these kinds of policy change may seem remote, but books like this will definitely help. It’s clear and easy to understand, and if enough people read it it could change the world.

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The Meaning of Things — A. C. Grayling

This book of thoughtful mini-essays on life’s big topics is a pleasure to read. But maybe I only think that because I agree with a lot of what Grayling has to say. But maybe I only agree with him because he’s right. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.

Most of the essays are only a page or two, so this is a good book to delve into at random. (In fact that’s what Grayling recommends. I always ignore recommendations like that though — I’m a “begin-at-the-beginning” kind of guy.) They are grouped into three categories: Virtues and Attributes (such as Fear, Death, and Blame); Foes and Fallacies (Racism, Christianity, Capitalism); and Amenities and Goods (Education, Reading, Age). The essays originally appeared as newspaper columns, so there is some repetition and a few rough edges — the book could do with a bit of editing.

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Thinking, fast and slow — Daniel Kahneman

My friend David lent me this book after telling me that it had been blowing his mind. I’m not sure if it has blown my mind, but it definitely helped me to understand it a bit better.

Kahneman suggests thinking of the mind as composed of two notional systems: the fast-thinking, intuitive System 1; and the slow, deliberate, accurate but lazy System 2. The interplay between these two results in the amazing, yet often incomprehensible, behaviour of our minds.

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The Paradox of Choice — Why More Is Less

The increasing amount of choice we have now allows us to lead lives that are objectively better, but subjectively worse than before. This thought-provoking book by Barry Schwartz tries to show why the increasing amount of choice in our lives isn’t making us happier — in fact, it’s making us less happy. Fortunately, he also describes solutions to allow us to manage the negative effects of choice.

I tend to agree with him in general. Here’s a rather trivial example of a way I have tried to avoid the problem. When confronted with a restaurant menu, I try to read down the menu until I find something that sounds good to me. Then I stop, and order that thing. There are some restaurants I have been to several times where I have never read to the end of the menu, because I know that I will end up agonising over my choice and thinking I should have chosen something else anyway.

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