Back in October, I was on a train headed to Vienna. An American man in his late 60s sat next to me and we struck up a conversation that lasted the duration of the two and a half hour trip. He was from Connecticut but had spent most of his adult life living in California. As a hippie in the 1960s, he hitchhiked across Canada. 13 years ago, his kids all grown up, he decided to move to Bangkok to work as an administrator at an English language school. He said it was the best thing he’s ever done. Eventually, our conversation steered to what we were reading.
“It’s good that you’re reading. Read everything you can,” is what he told me.
Here are some interesting books that I’ve enjoyed recently.
Shōgun by James Clavell
An epic adventure, which introduces us to a highly intelligent English sailor, John Blackthorne, whose boat crash lands on the shores of Japan in the early 1600s. In an effort to save his own life and hopefully one day return to England, Blackthorne slowly assimilates into the isolationist Samurai culture of the day, while becoming close allies with a powerful daimyo, Lord Toranaga. Through the 1,100 page story, we are witness to a historical, cross-cultural exchange and learn a tremendous amount about ancient Japanese culture. The concept of honour, the roles of wives and consorts and how the people of that time viewed death are all explored.
Author James Clavell goes to extraordinary lengths to describe the culture of feudal Japan, showing great respect for their customs by describing them with complete objectivity and in great detail. This is noteworthy because he spent time in a brutal Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, where he suffered greatly.
Clavell does a great job of tying the loose ends with an inner-monologue from one of the characters to close the book. When I had finished, I found myself missing my nightly reads. I would have loved to read a sequel. Shōgun truly transports you to another time and place. Highly recommended.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis was the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series and an intellectual giant of the 20th century. Originally an Atheist, Lewis would eventually became a devout Christian. During the Second World War, he gave a series of lectures to the BBC on Christian beliefs. These lectures formed the basis of the book. You can listen to one clip here:
This book makes a lot of interesting points in support of Christianity that are worth considering. The one I found most interesting was the following:
Almost all human beings are born with an inner sense of morality and right and wrong. We all know how we’re supposed to behave, but often break those rules and when we do, we usually try to rationalize it or make excuses for it. For example, say that I live with a roommate and we share a fridge. Say I start cooking up some food and preparing sandwiches, but steal my roommates’ cheese to add to my meals. Eventually he would notice and perhaps confront me about it. Very rarely would someone have the audacity to say “Yeah, I took your cheese, what are you going to do about it?” The likely response would be something like “Yeah I did, I thought I still had some of my own, but I ran out so I borrowed some of yours. I planned on replacing it, I swear!”
Where did this sense of right and wrong, this moral code or natural law, as Lewis describes it, come from? Why aren’t we all just running around, robbing and killing each other? Lewis argues that this sense of morality was given to humans by God.
“Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.”
This is just one of the many thought-provoking ideas put forward by Lewis. Whether you’re a believer or a non-believer, the book does provide some valuable ideas and insight on the human condition.
Be forewarned, it’s not an easy read. I found myself having to go back and reread paragraphs a few times to grasp what Lewis was getting at. Having said that, he usually provides some easy to understand real world examples to help readers better understand his complex arguments. The football quote above is a good example of this.
You can download a PDF of the book for free, from here.
The entire audiobook has been posted to YouTube.
The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
This is a fun little read written by Hunter S. Thompson in his early 20s. He sat on the novel for decades before releasing it upon the encouragement of a friend (Wikipedia says its Johnny Depp). The story follows Paul Kemp, an American journalist who moves from New York City to Puerto Rico to take a newspaper job. Most of the characters are depressed, angry and often violent people who work at the paper. They spend their days on the island drinking too much rum, getting into fights and worrying about the pending closure of the newspaper while dreading the fact that they are all getting older. Kemp himself falls into an awkward love triangle with a pretty young thing and her abusive boyfriend which doesn’t end well for anyone.
This book is easy to read. It’s a fun distraction. Good to read between more serious works
The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos
I had never heard of George Pelecanos. When I was back in Canada over the Christmas season, I was driving home from the gym listening to NPR’s Fresh Air. Pelecanos gave a lengthy interview in promotion of The Martini Shot, a collection of short, gritty stories. It was one of the best radio interviews I’ve heard. He talked about how he goes about writing, his life as the white parent of adopted black teenagers, mistakes he made in his youth and his time working as a writer for The Wire, among other things.
The collection of short stories in this book reflect those experiences. Pelecanos says he wrote The Martini Shot to show what life is like on the set of a TV show.
Pelecanos is an interesting cat. Listen to the interview. If you like what you hear, you’ll probably like The Martini Shot.
Thirty Seven: Essays on Life, Wisdom and Masculinity by Quintus Curtius
Quintus Curtius reads the difficult books so that you don’t have to.
A fanatic of the Latin language, Curtius explores masculinity by examining written works by the great thinkers of the past. An essay he wrote in 2014 persuaded me to read Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, which I reviewed here.
Thirty Seven is filled with nuggets of wisdom, brought back from the past to the contemporary reader, like this one:
“The vulture, because he feeds on carrion, is considered by us as a disgusting and wretched animal; but for the ancient Romans, experienced in divination by auguries, he was a favored animal and a good omen. For a vulture never attacked a living man, and performed a useful function in removing a source of pestilence.”
Curtius looks to the past to find solutions to the problems plaguing the modern man. He deplores the dearth of instruction available to young men seeking to begin a journey towards self-improvement.
“I have tried to remind readers of the glories of leadership, character, and masculine virtues that can change their lives. By bringing up the past, a time before masculine virtues were shamed and punished, we remind readers of the glories that will be theirs if they follow the right path.”
Curtius also submits an essay on the lost art of the pilgrimage and urges men to take up this forgotten ritual and explore the places and accomplishments of great men. This essay resonated with me. Being located in Europe affords me the opportunity to explore the accomplishments of some of history’s biggest names. I will have to plan a trek somewhere interesting.
What makes Thirty Seven so enjoyable is that you feel yourself getting smarter with every chapter. Curtius uses a wide range of vocabulary (I’ve added quite a few new words to my vocabulary thanks to this book) while helping us become wiser, more profound men. He is set to release a new book, Pantheon, by April 2015. You can visit his website to learn more and to get your daily dose of wisdom.
Of these five books, three of them look to the past and can provide guidance to men in the present. Shōgun showcases the best of Samurai culture while illustrating how a man can overcome cultural divides to become a great contributor in a strange new society. Mere Christianity provides a worldview which reminds us that while societies change and evolve, human nature does not. The spiritual needs of mankind have remained with us for thousands of years and for centuries, skeptics have had doubts about religion, yet Christianity continues to endure. Thirty Seven packages the wisdom of the past into digestible essays that we can take with us in our day-to-day lives.
This theme of exploring lessons learned in previous eras is one I plan to continue to explore. While it is wonderful to be living in a time of such technological advancements (I’m able to travel and while working online) I can’t help but think that these amenities may have anesthetized us, holding back the development of our character and, eventually, our wisdom. We’re so distracted now, which hinders any kind of deep thinking. Mankind has been wrestling with existential questions forever, some of the conclusions made in times gone by may seem out-of-place in our modern age, but could very well still hold value.
What are you reading these days? Any book recommendations that you’d like to suggest? Leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.