Review of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey

Review of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey

Half instruction manual, half voyeuristic thrill: it’s not very often that I describe books this way, but I think this is a good description of my experience of Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals.” I read about this book on the Tim Ferris blog, and decided I needed to read it, partly because the book seemed like it might deal with one of the big issues for me in life- how do you have time for creativity and hobbies when you’re earning a living. This seemed like less of an issue prior to having children, but now I really struggle trying to make time for everything I think would help add meaning for life. Little did I know that this book came from the author’s own exploration of the same issues in his own life! The author is a free lance writer, and this book came from his blog.

Studies show that everyone has 24 hours in a day. Ok, just kidding. No one needs a study to remind them that every great mind, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Stephen Hawking had exactly the same amount of time in a day as you and I do. But somehow, they managed to prioritize the things that mattered to them, and achieve great things. How did they do it? I often have my patients make routines- willpower is limited- to help them ensure they take care of important things and priorities in their lives. It turns out lots of famous writers and artists did the same thing.

The book is broken into small chapters, each dedicated to a specific artist. The first, about W. H. Auden, one of my favorite poets, follows the same pattern as all the chapters that follow it- when they woke, what they ate, when they worked, how they lived. I was a little sad to read about Auden’s amphetamine dependence, but a surprising number of artists from this book used amphetamines- I guess it was more common during a certain time.

I think the lessons of this book, namely that there are as many routines as there are artists, and that consistency is important- keep writing! Keep trying!- were ultimately pretty encouraging for me. The other part of the book I liked, which I alluded to already, was the ability to see how someone I admire from the past lived, how their relationships worked, and a recipe for how to create a life of art. I think this book would be great for any artist, or frustrated artist, for inspiration and reassurance.

If I have any squabbles, there are few- the author needed an editor. There were more grammar errors than I expected. At one point, I thought the book was self-published, and was surprised to see that it was not. However, this is a little squabble, and I’m sure most people won’t even notice. The small errors don’t detract from the book at all.

Overall, I really recommend this book!

Book Review: Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

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I think this book can often be summarized best by Leonardo Da Vinci himself: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Learn widely and deeply, from the source itself, from exploration and experimentation- not from pre-digested secondary sources, in other words. In some ways, Leonardo Da Vinci is so relevant to our current age that I found myself pondering the how his life and beliefs could be applied to today’s world of broad, shallow knowledge.

I think that many of us feel disconnected and fragmented- too different from others, ill at ease with  others, compounded by our tendency to connect virtually. We take our information in via  the sound bite, the Twitter feed (and if you want to know what the Chief Executive has said, you virtually must have a Twitter feed), the TV broadcast, the mobile phone notification.  I see increasingly more patients who question-“have I always had ADHD? My kids have ADHD” but yet have not optimized sleep, mood, and have not developed (or lost) the skills of deep focus. One of the best selling books in business today is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. We require teaching to help us focus given the number of distractions competing for our attention- the fabric of our minds is being frayed at the edges by the constant requests for our attention. Or is it? I think the answer is yes and no. I think we expect absolute focus, and value conformity in our young students. Heck, I value conformity in my young children. I understand- I feel a little upset when my kids aren’t listening in class, or appear to fall behind. I feel a little upset (and amused, I admit) when I get a crayon drawing with “I will not talk when the bell rings” from my son’s school, and a drawing for “better choices” that he might make later. But by forcing people into a mold for achievement, are we sacrificing creativity, zest for life, the joy of learning?

Leonardo did not live in a time like this, but struggled maintaining focus all the same. However, his restless intellect, periodic hyper focus, so common in ADHD (not the more often destructive bipolar disorder, as the author posited, though perhaps there is better evidence somewhere else), was admired at the time. The author himself points out that had Leonardo been able to follow through with his projects, we might have more surviving projects. He also admires Da Vinci’s joy for exploration and learning- and on trying to live a little more like DaVinci, observes that his life was richer for having made the attempt. Can we really say that Leonardo, the inventor of countless devices, painter of accurate optics and beauty, explorer of the mind, probably would have done a lot better on Ritalin? To be clear, the author is not saying this. But I wondered this- have I seen a Leonardo in my practice? Would I have checked the boxes of the DSM-5, and started medication? I like to think (and hope) not.  On the other hand, I can’t say I know better than my patients- some of these people are really suffering, and prevented from achieving what they feel they should. But are they trying to fit themselves into society’s expectation- I “should” behave some way or another, etc? I think observing Leonardo’s life with a critical eye- much like he might have himself- can give us some clarity to the place we have found ourselves.

Also interesting and much appreciated, was the author’s ability to review the evidence, and provide what he felt was the likeliest conclusion – too often, biographies, at the risk and worry of being paternalistic, or making judgements, leave us wondering why something happened. I really appreciated the author’s willingness to make himself vulnerable, to say, “this is what I think is most likely.” The book was surprisingly funny in places- the hilariousness of Da Vinci’s to-do lists- was worth the time reading the book alone.

I heard about this book on a podcast- I think it was Tim Ferris’s podcast- and was inspired to check it out from our local library. I am so glad I did. I encourage anyone interested to spend the time with this book. I’ll probably head back to the library soon for the biography this author wrote on Benjamin Franklin next.

 

Less, many times: A book review of “The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan,” by Andy Couturier

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I picked this book up at Kramerbooks in D.C. (if you haven’t been there, it’s a fun bookstore- not as much fun as my beloved Politics and Prose, but still great), partly because, like many people with too many first world problems, I’m trying to scale down. How lucky we are, those of us following the minimalist ideas of less stuff, simpler lives, to even have this choice!

I loved this book. Well, if I’m honest with myself, the first half of this book. The idea of the book is to explore the lifestyle and thought process of rural Japanese people, mostly elderly people, and how we might learn from them. The book reflects their lives- poetic, quiet, honest and humble. Many of the people are nuclear power protesters, and the book I picked up is a revised edition, with an update on the lives of these people post-Fukushima disaster. All of these people have opted to step out of the frenetic lifestyle of working, attending school, etc., from sun up to sun down in relentless pursuit of some external goal, for different, probably more authentic goals: time, family, connection with community, art, and slow living. While this is stepping outside the box in America, it’s REALLY stepping outside the box in Japan, and many of these individuals reported strong disapproval from their families. I admired them.

The problem for me was, halfway through the book, starting a new chapter, I started to dread the story: the individual as a young person, protested nuclear power/landfill/environmental problems, and decides to go against their families’ advice to:

  • travel to Tibet/India/Nepal to
  • study traditional weaving/traditional calligraphy/traditional religious texts/traditional music,
  • then decided to come back when Tibet/India/Nepal became too modernized, and
  • lived in the mountains in Japan where they
  • raise their own food/work the land/play music/do aforementioned traditional craft in Japan.

In the end, I felt that I could probably read half the book, and get the same story, only half as many times- is there an editor in the house??

I think there’s a way to read this without getting burned out with the similarity of the stories: don’t read it the way I did. Read the book a chapter at a time, savor their story, and then give the book a rest. By the time you come back to it in a few weeks or months, you won’t recall that the last person had almost exactly the same story, and you’ll feel the same way about the book when I started it: inspired by the peace, quiet, and rough edges of the simplicity of these lives.

If you’re interested in reading this book, I’ve attached the affiliate link to Amazon below.

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“The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of the Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge”: a book review…

relaxing-1979674_1920Hygge (hew-gah) is a popular topic these days, despite having an unattractive name- just do a search on Amazon, and there are at least 10 new books on the topic! The idea is simple cozy living at home for life satisfaction- similar to mindfulness, I guess. I first read about this concept in the book “The Year of Living Danishly” by Helen Russell.  She moved to Denmark with her significant other to learn why Denmark is consistently rated as the world’s happiest country. I thought that book was quite informative, and I was intrigued by the concept of Hygge, so I picked up “The Cozy Life” by Pia Edberg to learn more. Though I finished the book, I can’t say that I learned anymore from this book about Hygge than I did from Helen Russell’s book,  a recent New Yorker article that you can find for free here and a recent New York Times article that you can find here. If you have NEVER read anything about Hygge, the graphic above essentially gives you an idea of what it is. I guess the book would be essentially best for someone who wants a light introduction to the subject, and some inspiration to the topic. I didn’t think the advice such as to light spice or vanilla scented candles for a cozy atmosphere was worth the price of the book.

“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond was on several “Best of 2016” lists, but did it deserve the adulation the book received? For me, the answer was yes. Mr. Desmond, who has a PhD in sociology and specialized in the study of poverty, spent a few years living in low income housing with several families and individuals at risk for homelessness. He writes in the afterward that he was trying to find a “process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”

The stories of these people, often less than a paycheck from homelessness, were devastating. As a well-educated, financially stable person, I had no idea that there were completely insufficient social resources to act as a safety net; that as part of a misconceived community policing effort, landlords could be encouraged to evict women who were the victims of domestic violence (because their 911 calls marked the property as a “problem residence” for which the landlord can be fined). He also does a good job explaining the struggle of the landlords, though frankly it was less easy to relate to them, interestingly enough since I am likely more like the landlords socioeconomically. To me, this is the result of the thorough, and sympathetic treatment that his subjects receive at the hands of Mr. Desmond.

Why do I include this book review on this blog? Partly because I believe it is an amazing book, along the lines of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that brought the plight of the meat industry and those who worked in it to light, leading to a public outcry and legislation to reform the industry.

Additionally, part of the aim of my blog is to improve wellness among my readers. I strongly believe that empathy is part of a healthy psyche. In fact, lack of empathy is a major part of some mental health disorders and personality disorders. Studies recently have shown that our empathy is improved when we consider a few individuals, which makes it easier to conceptualize and personalize a situation. This is likely part of the reason that many people were not as concerned about Syria and the mass killings in Aleppo- 500,000 dead was too many for our minds to wrap around. Reading a book like this, with a few faces of poverty can help us put our own issues in perspective (I have never had to choose between rent and keeping the house warm or feeding my children!) and lead us to take productive, decisive action as citizens of our communities, country and world.

You need to read this book!

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“To dramatically change your life, you don’t need to run a 100-mile race, get a PhD., or completely reinvent yourself. It’s the small things, done consistently, that are big things.” –Tim Ferris

I just finished a great book, and feel like going back to re-read it already. I’m sure I’ve missed something since there is so much good information here. After downloading a sample from Amazon, I immediately bought the book, and highlighted so much information, I probably negated the point of highlighting in the first place! The book that I’m writing about is Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World Class Performers, by Tim Ferris.

The author of the Four Hour series (Four Hour Workweek, Four-hour Chef, etc), Mr. Ferris has a blog where he interviews interesting people- Navy Seals, technology and finance innovators, star athletes, movie stars, etc- that he admires. What a great job! For this book, he has whittled down each interview into the gems: quotes, books they read, strategies, etc. that each person uses. The book is organized roughly topically, into Benjamin Franklin’s “healthy, wealthy and wise” concept with each interviewee listed roughly in the section that applies to them, though I feel that many meet all three categories!

Additionally, he has written chapters that expand on some of the interview topics in the book, and I have to say that a few of the chapters- one on being a lifelong traveler, and one on “the canvas strategy” are worth the price of the book on their own. “The canvas strategy” which the author adapted from another author, Ryan Holliday, who in turn adapted from the Stoics, is the idea that serving others selflessly allows us to learn, provided we are choosing the right teacher. I thought this was such a profound message- learn by putting your ego aside, and serving someone else.

One of the many things I appreciate about this book is probably not something that other people would notice, but as a psychiatrist who has worked in hospice as a volunteer and deals with death anxiety frequently in patients, I appreciate the thread running through the book regarding the brevity of life, and inevitability of death- make the most of what you have! I often suggest Staring at the Sun by Irving Yalom for patients regarding this issue.

My only complaint- and it isn’t really a complaint: at the end, he lists all of the books that his guests have suggested as vital to their development. My book list to read is now longer than I have conceivable years on earth!