Most Impactful Books of 2016

I am enjoying reading the lists of books, podcasts, and movies that people compile at the end of the year. People’s tastes are idiosyncratic, so I figure if I find one or two things that are new and interest me then it was worth the time reading their list. Whilst reading the New York Times Book Review survey of writers and their favorites of 2016, I found quite a few new things to read in 2017 (more on that at the end).

Three journals from 2016 and my current composition book… on my desk in winter’s light.

The challenge is always remembering what I have read in Q1 or Q2. This is why I write down the titles in my journal. Please allow me a moment to pause and say a word on behalf of journaling. I have been writing in a personal journal for most of my life. Okay, so when I was in third grade I called it a diary and it had a key that I lost somewhere over the years. Sometimes they devolve into a book of lists. Sometimes I take notes on a particularly moving podcast or documentary or copy passages from a book.

I also use composition notebooks for work. I learned this technique from Dr. Henry Vaux at the University of California. It is easier to look for notes based on the timeline of meetings and associations than to keep them in separate files by topic. When I begin a new comp book, I tear out a few of the most important pages from the old one and tuck them in the back. I hang on to the old one for about a month and then shred it because I find I rarely go back to find information. It is more important as a tool in the moment–writing helps me process information and improves my memory. I never understand the people who never write down a single word in a meeting. How can they relinquish so much power?

Back to the book list! I know a book has impacted me greatly when I give it as gifts to one or more people. So while Toni Morrison said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was a must read, I couldn’t stop thinking about Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I gave it to 3 people and I have one more copy to give away.

I participated in the Jane Austen Reading Group that meets at the McClatchy library in Sacramento. I read two books that I shared with others:  Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: a life in small things, and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. This almost made up for the other months when I had to read the muck that passes as Jane Austen tributes, mysteries, etc.

Lynne Twist came to Sacramento to speak at our church and to nonprofit leaders about The Soul of Money. I reread her book and gave several copies to others to encourage them to attend her presentations. You have to be ready to hear the message. I know I didn’t cotton to her ideas the first time I read it. I just recently watched the documentary Minimalism on Netflix, and while it touches on a lot of topics shallowly, I still found it compelling.

Thanks to the podcast On Being, I discovered some new writers including David Whyte. I shared chapters of his book with friends and colleagues and used them as the focal points of discussions. One discussion of “boids” in The Heart Aroused led to reading the 1992 book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrup. I found so many of the ideas about complexity theory of interest to the challenges of managing a megaproject that I shared copies with our team before we went on holiday break.

One of the books that moved me most profoundly was Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink about the modern Muslim faith. It really helped me fill in a giant gap in my knowledge and to see similarities to my faith in Jesus. I want to know more.

What is in my pile to read in 2017? Waking Up White by Debby Irving; Lit by Mary Karr; Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Tribe by Sebastian Junger; Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. There are more on my wish list: Ann Pachett’s Commonwealth, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

One final note, Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong had a real impact on me at the time I read it. And then the nastiness of the election overwhelmed the public space and now the world just doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable except among friends and trusted colleagues. I still believe that Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability is hugely important in our world today. So if you haven’t read it yet: give yourself a New Year treat and download or pick it up today.

What I Learned from Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice 1980I was a freshman in college when the 1980 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice aired on Masterpiece Theater. After two episodes I couldn’t wait to find out what happened so I found a copy of Jane Austen’s masterpiece and read it almost in one swallow. I was thrilled to discover she wrote other books. No comment on the quality of my high school education, yet I am glad I discovered Jane Austen outside the classroom because I liked the freedom of experiencing it without the taint or tedium of high school discussions. I learned so much about life and myself from reading her books. I am a rebel that way.

What I also learned is that not very many people in college actually read Austen. And fewer are enthusiasts. Whereas I was so excited I began celebrating her birthday in December, to which most people reacted with a quizzical brow.

Fast forward 30+ years and imagine my thrill at finding the Jane Austen Reading Group that meets monthly at the Ella McClatchy public library. We are all enthusiasts. At last I have found a Jane loving tribe. Our most recent book for discussion was A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz (WD). WD is a brilliant writer and captivated us all with his memoir based on what he learned about life while studying Austen’s work as a graduate student at Columbia University.JA education

WD was 26 when he picked up Emma as part of a class assignment. He was enthralled with modern literature and had assiduously avoided 19th century literature. The timing was perfect as he discovered one of the best storyteller moralists just as he was ready to grow up.

“Learning that my feelings mattered–learning to figure out what my feelings were in the first place–was extremely liberating as I got older. I needed to realize that I could do what I wanted with my life and that I could do it just because I wanted to. Accepting that my emotions were valid and important and morally significant–they they should have a bearing on how I act–was a crucial part, at that point, of growing up.” (p 68)

Reading Jane Austen helped him realize that there was a better way to value people. “Not as fun or not fun, or stylish or not stylish, but as warm or cold, generous or selfish. People who think about others and people who don’t. People who know how to listen, and people who only know how to talk.” (p 161) Austen created characters who on the surface were recognizable and tedious, but also kind and tenderhearted (Mr. Woodhouse) or loving and cheerful (Miss Bates). Austen taught WD to appreciate the finer human qualities.

She prized people with character above people with an aristocratic title or cold hearted family members. In her early books she gave her heroines a happy ending with husband of good character, oh yeah, and bags of money. As she grew older her stories focused more on the value of friendship and she examined the differences between superficial relationships and true friendship. “Putting your friend’s welfare before your own, that was Austen’s idea of true friendship. That means admitting when you’re wrong, but even more importantly, it means being willing to tell your friend when they are… True friends do not shield you from your mistakes, they tell you about them: even at the risk of losing your friendship–which means, even at the risk of being unhappy themselves.” (p 194)

WD had a mentor professor who taught him many things about life and Jane Austen. He shared in a conversation one day, “Austen is saying that it’s important to spend time with extraordinary people,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘So that’s what I advise you to do: spend time with extraordinary people.” (p 110)



Asking the Right Questions

In A Jane Austen Education, a memoir by William Deresiewicz, he quotes his mentor professor: “Answers are easy,” he would later say. “You can go out to the street and any fool will give you answers. The trick is to ask the right questions.” (Karl Kroeber)

This resonated with me because I learned the importance of powerful questions in my executive coach training with CTI. The training provides you with examples of powerful questions; however, the key is to let your intuition take the lead.

In this graduation season there have been many videos of speeches posted, and this one by Dean James is a keeper:

Here are the five questions and bonus question listed for future reference:

  1. Wait, what?

2. I wonder why/if?

3. Couldn’t we at least?

4. How can I help?

5. What truly matters?

Bonus: And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?