A monthly roundup of some of what I’ve been reading. If you purchase by clicking on the cover images, you can provide modest support to this site.
Sandman (Audible) by Neil GaimanWay back in 2000, I placed in the Asimov/Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. As a prize, I was invited to attend a small convention where some famous Science Fiction and Fantasy writers met up each year. I spent three days hanging out by the pool with amazing authors like Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, and Charles Sheffield. I also had sushi one evening with a guy I’d never heard of named Neil Gaiman (okay, so I mostly sat quietly at the end of the table while he talked with the other grownups).
I tell this amusing anecdote because I had no ability at the time to appreciate an opportunity that many of my friends would have died for. Neil Gaiman is one of the most talented storytellers of our time. His book Stardust became a great movie, American Gods became a TV miniseries, and he delivered one of my favorite commencement addresses. I love every one of his books, and his Audible narrations are amazing; he reads his own work in a magical, British voice that was made for storytelling.
During a recent transition begin jobs, I decided to go back to Gaiman’s roots by reading his Sandman series–widely hailed to be the most literary comics ever written, which demonstrated the potential for comics as a serious art form. I had put them off because I have little appetite for horror. Sandman is indeed horrific at times (among other things, the third volume features a terrifying serial killer convention), but they are also brilliant, insightful, compassionate, and endlessly imaginative. I devoured each volume, eager to continue the story but dreading its eventual end.
So just as I was finishing the series, I was delighted to discover that Audible was releasing an epic audio dramatization of the Sandman, produced by Gaiman himself. The first episode is phenomenal. James McAvoy is perfect as the Sandman, and he is supported by a talented cast. Gaiman himself narrates. The production quality is exceptional. I have been seizing every opportunity to go for long drives or mow my lawn, but once again, I am sad at contemplating the drama’s inevitable end.
Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
I read this book a few years ago, but picked it up again while feeling discouraged. I had just given up leadership of my second startup, and was feeling adrift, aimless, and unsure of my future. This book chronicles Parker Palmer’s own journey, of achieving tremendous academic success only to find himself disillusioned, unhappy, and deeply depressed. That crisis led him on a journey of self-discovery that culminated in his finding a new vocation in teaching. It is, in other words, another wonderful book about the middle passage.
The book reads well alongside Falling Upward. They deal with similar themes, but the autiobiographical journey in Let Your Life Speak is raw and personal. I found that helpful because it gave voice to my own experience–and also offered hope that my journey will lead somewhere if I am patient.
Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
I discovered Richard Rohr through The Liturgists podcast, which is the closest thing I have to a spiritual home. The Franciscan friar is one of my favorite Christian thinkers, with a generous and inclusive vision of faith. His book Falling Upward falls into a genre I have spent a lot of time with in the past couple years: books about life’s middle passage. It is similar in spirit to James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, David Brook’s The Second Mountain, or Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak.
The premise of the book is that life divides into two journeys: the first half of life and the second half of life. The first half of life is primarily about survival, acquisition, and figuring out who we are; the second half of life is more about what we will use our lives for. The first half of life entails many failings and fallings, but these are what draw us into the deeper journey.
The book is rich in insight and wisdom. The themes were familiar to me from other works, but Rohr treats them with his characteristic joy, gentleness, and humor.
The 48 Laws of Power
It is a little jarring shifting from a monk’s spiritual reflections to a modern Machiavellian work that can be read as a psychopath’s bible. Robert Greene’s manual presents 48 “laws” for how to gain and hold power over other people. It is, according to its Amazon blurb, “amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive.” The book is polarizing. It feels ruthless. I would be terrified to interact with anyone who built his or her life solely on its principles. However, it also rings with truth; like Machiavelli, Greene rips away all pretenses to portray the world as he actually finds it. He argues that you cannot escape these power games even if you want to, so you had better learn to play well–and understand how you are being played.
On balance, I liked the book. Greene presents the hardest-edged case possible, which has pedagogical value; it is disturbing and feels over-the-top, but also challenged me as a reader to grapple with his claims. If I think he is being too extreme, the burden is on me to articulate why. The book fundamentally challenged me to consider how to reconcile the realities of power dynamics with living a moral life.
Whatever your degree of comfort with the book, I will say that it is an excellent tactical manual for innovators. Creating change, especially in large organizations, requires gathering power (or influence, if you prefer). Successful innovators must deftly wield power to achieve the outcomes they seek. Greene repeatedly articulated dynamics that I had seen, experienced, and practiced in my work.