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How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency

Who we are is not just how we are seen, but how we are unseen.

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Novel: How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch | Goodreads
Release Date: February 12, 2019
Publisher: Penguin Press
Format: eBook
Source: Library

It is time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world. Might invisibility be regarded not simply as refuge, but as a condition with its own meaning and power? The impulse to escape notice is not about complacent isolation or senseless conformity, but about maintaining identity, autonomy, and voice.

In our networked and image-saturated lives, the notion of disappearing has never been more alluring. Today, we are relentlessly encouraged, even conditioned, to reveal, share, and promote ourselves. The pressure to be public comes not just from our peers, but from vast and pervasive technology companies that want to profit from patterns in our behavior. A lifelong student and observer of the natural world, Busch sets out to explore her own uneasiness with this arrangement, and what she senses is a widespread desire for a less scrutinized way of life--for invisibility. Writing in rich painterly detail about her own life, her family, and some of the world's most exotic and remote places, she savors the pleasures of being unseen. Discovering and dramatizing a wonderful range of ways of disappearing, from virtual reality goggles that trick the wearer into believing her body has disappeared to the way Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway finds a sense of affiliation with the world around her as she ages, Busch deliberates on subjects new and old with equal sensitivity and incisiveness.

How to Disappear is a unique and exhilarating accomplishment, overturning the dangerous modern assumption that somehow fame and visibility equate to success and happiness. Busch presents a field guide to invisibility, reacquainting us with the merits of remaining inconspicuous, and finding genuine alternatives to a life of perpetual exposure. Accessing timeless truths in order to speak to our most urgent contemporary problems, she inspires us to develop a deeper appreciation for personal privacy in a vast and intrusive world.

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It feels ironic to be writing and publicizing a post on invisibility when the act of publishing is, by definition, transparent. While I’m grateful to be back on campus again this fall, it’s definitely a small school and small community in which invisibility is mostly impossible. Anonymity is relatively difficult (and undesirable, because you don’t get the same comfort of being around a cluster of strangers.) But sometimes you just need to ghost. I used to study in coffeeshops because I’m most focused when I’m around people, but not people I know. That state is pretty much impossible here, when you know almost everyone who walks into where you are — or are connected to them in some way. (Complement that thought with a fascinating read on social networks.)

My relationship with invisibility, especially in the age of social media when a handful of people know me as the girl from Instagram, is a complicated one. On one hand, I’m shy and introverted, especially at school; on the other, I have specific tastes and deep interests, which manifest in highly visible ways.

My summer of being invisible was such a luxury — something I relished and appreciated. It feels less doable here. I would go offline in a heartbeat again, but here it’s more of an escape than a hindrance.

In the winter, it was refreshing on a few occasions to go out to dinner alone, or to disappear into the woods for an afternoon instead of being on campus in the same apartments, spilling over with all the people you spend all your time with (and love, regardless.)

As I’ve mentioned, I have a few monthly reads queued up as reminders of some values that I cherished over the summer: digital minimalism, humility, appreciating place, and prioritizing character. Somehow, this trajectory emerged as a cobbled-together theme.

I wasn’t sure what function How to Disappear would serve — a how-to guide, full of the practical, or a philosophy. It ended up being a great look at how we define our identities, and how visibility interacts with that process.

MY THOUGHTS

How to Disappear starts out with personal reflection on being in nature, an immediate first person narrative. There’s lush description of color and trees — a quality always guaranteed to draw me in. The detail is expansive, and a little much at times, but underscores the emphasis on how much more you notice when you’re attuned to silence. (There was an excellent Brain Pickings quote in a post the other day, regarding that.)

“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” Gordon Hempton.

How to Disappear then takes the idea of invisibility literally, going into a discussion of how our vision affects our experience. As it states, humans have “diverse ways of being seen and unseen.” It casually references discussions of narcissism, improved technology, marginalized groups going unseen, flow states — all topics that beautifully illustrate our complicated culture. Invisibility can be a privilege too. Like, I’m not sure I would have had the same response to this book had I read this last winter.

A new vocabulary has emerged for this visibility. The word optics now has less to do with the science of light and more with how visual impressions of events and issues may be more important than the events and issues themselves.

I want to go in a thousand different directions with discussing this book and the various topics that arise within it. Like, one idea I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that of a model of something, a representation. Or like The Memory Illusion (one of my favorite, most disturbing books of the summer) discussed, that our representations of ourselves on social media become versions of ourselves equally as valid as those we engage with in person. Or I’ve always thought that sometimes I love photos of certain places more than the places themselves. That doesn’t often happen, because I love being outside too much, but sometimes a stunning photo of a natural scene takes my breath away in a way that’s difficult to replicate. Visual impressions as more important.

When identity is derived from projecting an image in the public realm, something is lost, some core of identity diluted, some sense of authority or interiority sacrificed. It is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding.

I’m astonished by the ability of How to Disappear to rope in all these different topics and effortlessly transition between them; it’s elegant, in a word. And it nails the balance between being technical and investigative in certain areas while still offering personal observations and reflections. It roots a lot of it in empathy and smallness of self as conducive to experiences of awe. And the scope of what it talks about is even more impressive because it’s a relatively short volume.

The unspoken has an accuracy of its own…when I was growing up, he told me that the human mind was designed to forget, designed to filter information and select the things that mattered, and that it sometimes succeeded at this, but not always.

It’s one of those books that feels like it has the whole world in it.

It talked about other bits of visibility and invisibility that so poignantly illustrated ways the natural world grapples with that balance. For example, mimicry in nature. Extending that discussion to mimicry and camouflage in humans, ways we conceal ourselves in society.

In some ways, camouflage is more frustrating to me than invisibility. Blending together. Apathy. (My favorite people are intentional ones.) I dislike the feeling of being interchangeable, although I do relish being unseen. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, and one that How to Disappear articulated so much better than I ever could. I got really into the idea of essentialism this summer, which, according to Google is,

a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are, and that the task of science and philosophy is their discovery and expression; the doctrine that essence is prior to existence.

Essentialism meshes well with the specificity of what I love, and alleviates the nerves we all seem to get when we worry that others will forget about us when we’re not around.

This book just understood all of it, and gave me so much to think about. In certain ways, it’s so relatable — the type of read I want to shove into all my friends’ arms in the hopes that they connect with some of the transitory coming-of-age type questions. In other ways, it’s just so sophisticated and thoughtful in a way that’s so admirable, that makes me so jealous that Busch was able to word all of it so beautifully. It’s a meaningful read, and concise.

Facial recognition systems, retinal scanning, and biometric tools that can read everything from voice and heart rate to hormone levels and brain waves have given us nearly infinite ways in which to know ourselves. Now if there were only as many ways to forget ourselves.

I appreciated the musings on identity, because that’s something I’ve had a lot of questions about lately. A lot of philosophy gets too dense about it, and to a certain extent, overthinking your identity is enormously unhelpful. What keeps you the same person? What do you love about the people you love? How visible are we to others? Which “version” of yourself are you at a given time, and which ones are true — or most important?

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I want to talk with someone who reads this about the instability of the human character — the studies that show how little of ourselves remains the same over the years — or what remains the same — and how hard that is to pin down. That the only constant is choosing to see yourself as the same person.

The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been.

Contemporary identity politics ask for a deep appraisal of what makes us who we are. We all want to be recognized and identified precisely and accurately. We want the images we have of ourselves to be true.

I ALSO LOVED

Descriptions of the calm of being underwater — a concept first illuminated to me in reading The Blue Mind, a recommendation from a friend, but supported by everything else I’ve read.

Gorgeous imagery describing animals —How to Disappear had a sublime way of reminding us of the big picture, especially in regards to nature. There were so many descriptions of sinuous beings interacting with their surroundings, which Busch tied effortlessly to some beautiful reflection on some esoteric topic relating to visibility.

SO many lines I wanted to underline — the problem with writing this review is that there are so many tangents I want to go on, so many lines I want to include. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that if I included everything that I wanted to, the review would be the entire book.

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In essence, How to Disappear is a marvel. It’s smart and spot-on, with poetry and gravitas. I keep wanting to use the word “gorgeous,” which it is, but it gets repetitive. My head is spinning. Read it, so I have someone to talk to about it! It will definitely reappear on the blog, as I continue to mull over its importance and refine how to actually talk about it. It’s on the favorites list for sure.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I’ve read this book a dozen times over the past ten years — it was released in 2010. It’s not so much that it gets better with age so much as that you can read it in different layers. It’s timeless because of its questions of morality, meaning, the balance between the nuances of daily life and the bigger picture. It’s perfectly proportioned, a mix of giddiness and heaviness. Textured, sensory scenes that draw you in and evoke specific atmospheres; characters that are flawed and nuanced and endearing; a sense of urgency in coming-of-age; wisps of poignant commentary.

I’d recommend it to anyone in its recommended age group — a young adult audience — but it’s a book containing the freedom and situations that I’ve experienced more in college. An overwhelming sense of having the world unfurling in front of you but not knowing how to feel or what to do. An accuracy of crossroads.

One of the reasons why Before I Fall is so effective is that it doesn’t tell you how to feel. It raises questions and doesn’t have committed solutions. It’s just one way of navigating. Oliver’s writing is gorgeous and her pacing is stunning.

It’s not a “beautiful people have dark secrets” exposé, as is so common nowadays. It’s a “lucky people have complex questions" one. It’s stark about the reasons the girls in it lead easy lives, and the reasons others don’t, but it’s not abrasive about it. It doesn’t romanticize it either, but interrogates the choices and chances that led to the events of the book. It all feels really human.

It’s fundamentally an excellent mixture of nostalgia and the blunt force of having to grow up really quickly — capturing that pinnacle moment of realizing that you’ll never be able to go back to certain ignorances that you had in childhood.

Novel: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver | Goodreads
Release Date:
October 25, 2010
Publisher:
HarperCollins
Format:
Paperback
Source:
Bought

What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: the world’s most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life.

Instead, it turns out to be her last.

Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.


““Here's one of the things I learned that morning: if you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. It's like that old riddle about a tree falling in a forest, and whether it makes a sound if there's no one around to hear it.

You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That's how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth. You'd be surprised at how easy it is to bust out of orbit, to spin out to a place where no one can touch you. To lose yourself--to get lost.

Or maybe you wouldn't be surprised. Maybe some of you already know.

To those people, I can only say: I'm sorry.”

It’s refreshing that it’s both a life and death narrative in the sense that she’s trying to figure out how to save someone and herself, but it’s also life and death in the sense that she’s parsing through a lot of questions about whether or not she’s supposed to exist in the way that she does, and whether it’s possible to go back to a day before any of it ever happened.

Before I Fall is one of those books that I take a pen to and end up marking up the whole page because I love it so much, a book that’s more highlight than plain text. Lauren Oliver picks out the most glorious details, a marvel of attention.

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The friendships are unconditional and variant. Sam can critique the actions of her friends without demonizing them, recognizing the things they don’t speak about as well as all the small details and histories that she loves.

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Sam adjusts her philosophies and grows a lot, but she remains fundamentally the same person. It’s not like she enters the book a mean girl and exits it completely kind and selfless. That character development felt so genuine and affecting.

“That's the way I feel, at least: like there's a real me and a reflection of me, and I have no way of telling which is which.”

Sam also appreciates a lot of small beauties and changes, which is partly why I like her so much. The little things, the bits of color and setting that stack up and make her awestruck by the ordinary.

The structure of the book — fanned out over seven days, a number that’s never fully explained — lends itself well to the specific rhythms of each day. The cycles of each day and the ripple effects that have thematic implications. It also gives so much credibility to the established relationships that form the core of this book. So much backstory, so many overlapping worries and joys. Every detail feels curated.

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“How is it possible, I think, to change so much and not be able to change anything at all?”

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“I've never really thought about it before, but it's a miracle how many kinds of light there are in the world, how many skies: the pale brightness of spring, when it feels like the hole world's blushing; the lush, bright boldness of a July noon; purple storm skies and a green queasiness just before lightning strikes and crazy multicolored sunsets that look like someone's acid trip.”


Have you read it? What did you think?

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I am a creature of habit.

I’ve said this before, but I am a definite creature of habit. I also get settled into grooves pretty quickly — so time periods like the beginning of the school year are SO important because that’s what will really stick around. Whatever I do now is what I duplicate. Catch me up before 7 am, screens off at 7 pm, asleep at 9 pm. Swimming, walking, laying out my clothes at night. (Surely this will go on all year, right?)

I’ve been controlling the past few weeks in determining what my schedule looks like and how it fits with what I want to do this year. Lucky for me, I also read a ton on habit formation this summer, with some reads that heavily influenced my practices. Some of them were rather self-help-y — hello, I’m a college senior! Self-help books are so the forte right now — while others felt more academic in nature. Your girl loves pop science. And I THRIVE on a daily schedule.


Novel: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink | Goodreads
Release Date: January 9, 2018
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Format: eBook
Source: Library

Everyone knows that timing is everything. But we don't know much about timing itself. Our lives are a never-ending stream of "when" decisions: when to start a business, schedule a class, get serious about a person. Yet we make those decisions based on intuition and guesswork.

Timing, it's often assumed, is an art. In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink shows that timing is really a science.

Drawing on a rich trove of research from psychology, biology, and economics, Pink reveals how best to live, work, and succeed. How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule? Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores? How can we turn a stumbling beginning into a fresh start? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise? And what is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?

This is one of those books that has abstractly snuck into my daily life without me particularly noticing; I’m always (obviously) more inclined to adopt a habit if I know why I’m doing it. While I’m sure some aspects of the book are gimmicky, the case studies and tidbits were exactly the small thrills of information that I like to pick up from books like these. Bits like having caffeine 90 minutes after waking up instead of right after — thank you, summer-induced coffee habit — and the best times to start new practices were familiar but still helpful.

It’s definitely exaggerated at times, in assuming the magnitude of the role of timing in certain decisions, but it’s still pleasant to read, and gave me a small illusion of control over the natural bumps and dips of my day. It’s more of a soft overview of these kinds of topics than a manual, but I loved the ways it made me think about how to arrange my days.

Novel: Atomic Habits by James Clear | Goodreads
Release Date:
October 16, 2018
Publisher:
Avery
Format:
eBook
Source:
Library

The instant New York Times bestseller

Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results

No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving--every day. James Clear, one of the world's leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

If you're having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn't you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don't want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Here, you'll get a proven system that can take you to new heights.

Clear is known for his ability to distill complex topics into simple behaviors that can be easily applied to daily life and work. Here, he draws on the most proven ideas from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to create an easy-to-understand guide for making good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible. Along the way, readers will be inspired and entertained with true stories from Olympic gold medalists, award-winning artists, business leaders, life-saving physicians, and star comedians who have used the science of small habits to master their craft and vault to the top of their field.

Learn how to:

* make time for new habits (even when life gets crazy);

* overcome a lack of motivation and willpower;

* design your environment to make success easier;

* get back on track when you fall off course;

...and much more.

Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success, and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits--whether you are a team looking to win a championship, an organization hoping to redefine an industry, or simply an individual who wishes to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, or achieve any other goal.

Atomic Habits took a different approach than When, in that it talked about how to form habits rather than specifically which habits to have. Techniques like habit stacking and visual cues helped me to organize a lot of my thoughts about practices I wanted to put into place, and were arranged in a way that made effortless sense. The book fits with the way that I like to learn and change: baby steps. It’s incremental and instructive, including varied perspectives that could appeal to a host of different personalities.

Honestly, the book itself was a lot more valuable than I expected. I’d gone into it expecting a somewhat repetitive, likable but pithy narrative about the importance of habits, but without a whole lot of substance. Instead, Atomic Habits made a ton of excellent points, and backed them up with solid and compelling information.

I also appreciated his emphasis on identity formation — a whole new topic for a blog post! — because that train of thought was one that stimulated a lot of internal debate for me. People reflect your behavior back to you, we fall prey to survivorship bias, etc,. It made the argument that your habits are how you embody your identity. You only believe your identity because you have proof of it.

Most books like this have a tendency to put the tangibles (like activities to put in place) over the much more intangible, but more effective, shift in identity that they require. That’s also why typecasting other people can be so limiting! In that sense, that discussion almost did more for me than the purpose of the book, which was to teach the reader various ways to solidify new routines. There were some one-liner zingers in there as well, which I appreciated.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

It’s a big reminder of the power of the little things, which, if you know me, is a huge part of my philosophy. And it’s a strong indicator of the necessity of the process rather than the result, which is something I’ve often struggled to keep in mind.

There are so many spot-on sections of this book, and gratifying explanations. It also doesn’t restrict itself exclusively to habits, but explores plenty of psychological topics related to our habits. Identity, as mentioned previously, along with instant vs. delayed gratification, the motivation of progress as a concept, environmental influences, the ways we measure ourselves and our worth, etc,. It’s both encouragement and a wake-up call.


I really enjoyed both of these books for different reasons. I’m fascinated by the idea of an “ideal” schedule, although it seems vaguely mythical. I loved the tangibility of habit formation, and the genuine help in how to put new behaviors into place. Overall, Atomic Habits was my favorite, but they’re both good. And although it’s only the second week of school, I haven’t yet “broken the chain” of any of the goals that I’ve tried to initiate — including writing reviews.

Words About Sounds: Books About Music

This summer, I got more particularly into music. Although I’ve always loved music (doesn’t everyone?), I feel like it’s one of those domains that’s difficult to attach to your identity if you don’t actively pursue it. This summer, I just read a bunch about it.

I’ve always gravitated towards anything sensory. Obviously, I love art in all forms. (I’m just in constant awe of talented, passionate people, and love to share about them when I can.)

It started because I loved reading about how pleasure works in the brain — in various domains — and how states of flow can tap into that. Flow via music can be achieved in so many different ways: playing it, dancing to it, listening to it. I’m dying to read this book on flow, curious about the science behind it, especially since it’s popped up in so many of my summer reads. A Natural History of the Senses is also the first book on my list for when I have room in my budget again (yikes.)

It feels so lucky that we can enhance our experiences just by knowing more about them. Like, even just reading all these musical books has infinitely expanded my capacity to appreciate listening to a song, and I adore everything about finding time for music in my day. Out of everything I did in my summer, learning more about how music works was one of the most valuable.

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As I’ve thought about escapism, that’s taken various forms. I’ve always loved finding my escape through reading, but I’ve also become more attuned to the transcendent experience of just sitting in your car late at night, listening to a song. How you go to another place in your head. (Did you know that we derive so much of our daily pleasure from daydreams?) That’s partly why music can be so integral to the power of our experiences. For one, songs can capture memories so easily — hence, some being banned from my summer playlists —and for another, they’re just engineered in ways that stimulate our minds in just the right ways.

The books that became part of that unintentional musical series will no doubt appear on the blog in various forms over the coming weeks and months, because they contributed so much to how I think about music now.

Both in what I was doing all summer (dancing) and my latest reading kick (psychology of art/aesthetics), that topic fit perfectly.

I’ve always been around music, because I’ve always played instruments. In college, particularly, practicing guitar or piano was a good way to enter a state of flow. It’s also proven that progress makes human beings consistently happier than anything else, so chipping away at a new song is one of my favorite ways to fumble. Even if I am butchering a rendition of a beloved song, it just feels good.

I spent a lot of my summer driving from city to city. One playlist, a ten-hour drive, still not tired. But for me, especially after some of the musical criticism I read this summer, the same song could unfurl in a dozen different ways and I took a lot of joy from picking it apart for ages. I can occupy myself for awhile.

Part of the reason I got even more interested in how music worked was that I was constantly around it. If you want to know which songs are going to blow up, go to a dance studio. Choreographers are often attuned to big breaks before the rest of the general public. Additionally, a lot of the dancers spanned multiple spheres, singing and acting as side gigs.

Getting back into dance again — especially as deeply as I went this summer, the dance world consuming most of my time and travel — made me realize how much of it I’d misinterpreted growing up. I was used to cranking out routines for recital, perfecting it so everyone followed the same timing. Tricks. Synchronicity. Performing further away from the audience.

Now, the landscape is so different: performing for the camera, infusing the moves with your own flair, choreography as “more of a suggestion.” There’s more musicality and style. Much more focus on Instagram. While I have plenty more to talk about on that front — and you can stalk my favorite dancers and choreographers here — I realized ultimately that my favorite dancers were all fantastic listeners. They punctuated well; they anticipated beats masterfully. I’d never seen dance as so much of a language.

I was inundated in classes where we talked about texture and pockets and riffs, where you could see the application of those concepts so immediately. (That immediate gratification, paired with the slow-and-steady improvement of more long term skills, was an addictive combination. My parents had to drag me away from the Millennium location in Nashville.)

Having had those experiences, and getting a much fuller and richer experience of what dancing could do with a song, I’ve been more intrigued than ever by how we interpret music. How it affects our culture. How our bodies absorb it. Below are some of my favorite reads on the subject — individual reviews to come soon.

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A Selection of Musical Books

Guitar Zero discussed that, as well as various ways to improve your musical habits. It gets a little repetitive, so it got harder to read as I got further along, but I adored the useful ways to get better at practicing. (I’m a sporadic player, and I really should be more consistent about working on my instruments!)

This Is Your Brain on Music was perhaps the most comprehensive, and occasionally exhaustive, overview. The musical jargon could be a lot at times, so I worked my way through it slowly. But I loved it. It’s the best for understanding how music affects the brain, and it’s written by a guy who literally can tell the difference between various types of tape that a recording studio uses just by the way the music sounds. It also pays attention to the different formats in which we listen — like how headphones have changed our music taste. Absolutely riveting.

The Song Machine was an engrossing look into how the music industry worked, and how we’re receptive to certain patterns and similarities. For anyone bemoaning how all modern music sounds the same, I’d encourage you to give it a shot!

Every Song Ever could be pedantic — massive words, obscure concepts, a little too much abstract criticism — but completely changed the way that I listen to music. The concepts I hold in my mind when I do. The book covers twenty different ways to listen and afterwards, I could genuinely listen to the same song dozens of times and find new aspects to appreciate.

Absolutely on Music was a gem. Haruki Marukami had some wise conversation with a renowned composer, and their discussions were well-balanced. It’s a read that pays tribute and respect to an important figure Seiji Ozawa, and they cover a range of topics related to music and creativity. It’s rooted in specific songs, referencing particular moments and choices.

I’m excited to fully review each of these in time, but love being able to share them as an overview for those interested in music, art, or why we love the things we love. I relished my time with these books.

Rationality, Kindness, and Emotion

Several of my favorite books are ones that allow me to distance myself from emotional experiences — to view immersive experiences through a very particular, logical lens that helps me to understand them. I think that’s especially helpful to couple with the empathetic and reflective properties of fiction — mirror neurons firing when you read about characters undergoing certain conflicts or joys. (Part of why I’m not reading fiction right now: I feel like I could use a little less of that!)

It’s always tempting to feel as though there’s some grand secret to living well that you just haven’t found yet, and exploring various options through books is a nice way to discover it. I love to read about the brain in a misguided attempt to understand it, and here are some of the gems I’ve found lately.


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Novel: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett | Goodreads
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: eBook
Source: Library

A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind.

Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology—ans this paradigm shift has far-reaching implications for us all.

Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and shedding new light on what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much greater role in your emotional life than you ever thought. Its repercussions are already shaking the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, meditation, and even airport security.

Why do emotions feel automatic? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain.

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain surprised me. I’d expected it to have a formula: this is how happiness works, this is how sadness works, etc,. Instead, it argued that emotions are subjective, specific, and arising from circumstances. Part of the reason we feel emotion is that we’re constantly predicting where our lives will go next. It sounds basic, but it’s not. How Emotions Are Made is more theoretical than breaking down the neuroscience of emotion, which isn’t exactly what the synopsis indicates, but an interesting perspective that’s well-written and gave me food for thought.


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Novel: Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley | Goodreads
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Publisher: Knopf
Format: eBook
Source: Library

You are a mind reader, born with an extraordinary ability to understand what others think, feel, believe, want, and know. It’s a sixth sense you use every day, in every personal and professional relationship you have. At its best, this ability allows you to achieve the most important goal in almost any life: connecting, deeply and intimately and honestly, to other human beings. At its worst, it is a source of misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict, leading to damaged relationships and broken dreams.

How good are you at knowing the minds of others? How well can you guess what others think of you, know who really likes you, or tell when someone is lying? How well do you really understand the minds of those closest to you, from your spouse to your kids to your best friends? Do you really know what your coworkers, employees, competitors, or clients want?

In this illuminating exploration of one of the great mysteries of the human mind, University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley introduces us to what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make. Why are we sometimes blind to the minds of others, treating them like objects or animals? Why do we sometimes talk to our cars, or the stars, as if there is a mind that can hear us? Why do we so routinely believe that others think, feel, and want what we do when, in fact, they do not? And why do we believe we understand our spouses, family, and friends so much better than we actually do? Mindwise will not turn other people into open books, but it will give you the wisdom to revolutionize how you think about them—and yourself.

Like many of the other books I’ve read this summer, Mindwise focuses on cognitive biases. All the flawed ways in which we think we know what’s really going on, but are just playing into the circumstances and (incomplete) cues around us. Similarly to How Emotions Are Made, Mindwise doesn’t so much attempt to break down the science so much as presenting a perspective that we’re so, so wrong when we assume we know what others think. The bottom line? You can’t, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Mindwise focused on the addictiveness of the idea of knowing others without hearing their backstories, thoughts, and spending a lot of time with them. It talked about the unbalanced standards we use to judge others without applying the same to ourselves. And it talks about fostering empathy through genuine equivalency. It was a little hard to get through — plain at times — but an excellent check for when we assume we know others without taking the time to actually listen to them. (The bottom line, especially considering the misunderstanding associated with living our lives online, is to just ask others and to listen to what they tell you.)


Novel: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor | Goodreads
Release Date: May 26, 2009
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Format: eBook
Source: Library

Kindness is the foundation of the world’s great religions and most-enduring philosophies. Why, then, does being kind feel so dangerous? If we crave kindness with such intensity, why is it a pleasure we often deny ourselves? And why—despite our longing—are we often suspicious when we are on the receiving end of it?

In this brilliant book, the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor examine the pleasures and perils of kindness. Modern people have been taught to perceive ourselves as fundamentally antagonistic to one another, our motives self-seeking. Drawing on intellectual history, literature, psychoanalysis, and contemporary social theory, this book explains how and why we have chosen loneliness over connection. On Kindness argues that a life lived in instinctive, sympathetic identification with others is the one we should allow ourselves to live.

Bursting with often shocking insight, this brief and essential book will return to its readers what Marcus Aurelius declared was mankind’s “greatest delight”: the intense satisfactions of generosity and compassion.

I love to read about empathy and kindness -- a reminder to always try and be a better person than I am. Plus, the rewards system behind kindness (a very Franny and Zooey-induced question of, is it actually selfless if it makes me feel good?) has always intrigued me. Any rational study of emotion does. I link to this speech on my listening page, but George Saunders’s “Congratulations, by the way” speech is one of my favorite reminders. I don’t think the world has gotten less kind — as some theorists speculate — but I do think it’s a constant choice. Reading this philosophical POV was a unique perspective I hadn’t considered: about kindness as a survival-oriented, unconscious, and evolutionary mechanism. While Phillips got Freudian REALLY quickly, On Kindness was a thorough, digestible read I’m grateful to have added to my list.