Category: Book Blogs

In order to be a better writer and creative, I need to read. I’ll share some of the thoughts on the books I’ve read and blog about them.

My Book Recommendations (And Those to Avoid) from 2019

Over the course of 2019, I challenged myself to read more, because I wanted to grow as a creative individual and a professional, and, more broadly, I wanted to consume more books so I could improve my writing. I was at a decent pace in the beginning of the year, but it wasn’t until the second half of 2019 when I read Cal Newport’s, “Digital Minimalism,” that I kicked my reading into high gear. For example, after reading “Digital Minimalism,” I finished 38 books since August. (Learn more about about Newport’s book recommendation here: Cal Newport and Digital Minimalism.) Throughout all that reading, I came across some books that I absolutely loved and wanted to recommend, and I also came across a couple that I thought were terrible. Here are some of my book recommendations that helped me take steps to becoming a better creative and writer in 2019–and some that I should have avoided.

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The Bookshelf Challenge: Are My Shelves Bullshit?

When I lived in Miami, Florida, I loved visiting Books & Books, a locally-owned, independent neighborhood bookstore. All over the city, Books & Books reigns as the ultimate source for literary events and the book-buying experience. The Bell has tomed for me (😳)  many times at Books & Books, and I’ve spent my fair share of money. And I’m well aware that with every single purchase, the bookseller placed a bookmark that had the following Borges quote:

I cannot sleep unless I’m surrounded by books.

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Why Read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land?

This month I decided to read Robert A. Heinlein’s Strange in a Strange Land for one reason: Stephen King wrote “[Heinlein was] not only America’s premier writer of speculative fiction, but the greatest writer of such fiction in the world. He remains today as a sort of trademark for all that is finest in American imaginative fiction.” When the King speaks so glowingly about another writer, I’m inclined to listen. So I picked up Robert A. Heinlein’s Strange in a Strange Land from my local bookstore, The Book Catapult. Ultimately, I wanted to know why I should read Heinlein’s 1961 novel…today.

I didn’t know much about Heinlein’s work. When I Googled Heinlein, I recognized some of his other titles, specifically “Starship Troopers,” even though my association with that book is more of Denise Richards and the slaughtering of alien bugs. I went into the book with very little knowledge of the author, but Heinlein was a four-time winner of the Hugo Award. Clearly, Heinlein is someone we’re supposed to read.

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How to Get Better at Reading

This is going to be embarrassing. Over the last year, I forgot how to read. Every time I picked up a book, well, I couldn’t actually connect with the words, pages, paragraphs. The novels and memoirs that I normally loved became cumbersome strangers. Perhaps it was the books I was reading, I can hear you saying, but it wasn’t the quality of my selections. From fun reads to intellectually stimulating journeys, I was trying to read works by talented authors.

There is a line in one of J.D. Salinger’s short story, For Esme:–with Love and Squalor, that reminds me of this predicament:

“He was seated on a folding wooden chair at a small, messy-looking writing table, with a paperback overseas novel open before him, which he was having great trouble reading. The trouble lay with him, not the novel.”

Ever since I read this line almost eight years ago, it stuck out to me because it showed that the problem with reading is often not the book; it’s the state of the mind of the person. Perhaps books can also read people. As a journalist, a graduate with an MFA in creative writing, and a published author, I was just not enjoying reading. Everything I read felt like work.

So, what was wrong with me?

Perhaps I can blame this on just being tired. After working all day, reading and reading and writing and writing and strategizing and strategizing, it was easy to surmise that I just didn’t have the mental strength to come home and read for enjoyment. But I heard on a podcast that the mind shouldn’t be thought of as a muscle that becomes fatigued and needs a rest; it’s more of computer that is always on and can never be turned off … it just needs, well, a variety of inputs.

What else was strange about my disinterest in reading was that I was crushing Audible books. Over the last two to three years, I have noticed that the amount of books I consumed in an audio format was beginning to exponentially surpass (I’ve decided I’m pro split infinitive 😉) the amount of physical or digital books that I was reading. I started to wonder if I just preferred the audio format of books now, and that my tastes had simply evolved. Homer was meant to be spoken rather than read after all.

I asked myself: Why was I enjoying the audio books more than the physical artifact, which I collect and love so much? What changed?

I couldn’t understand it. I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. Perhaps my capabilities as a reader were just simply diminishing. Perhaps I was actually just dumber than I was before. Perhaps I didn’t care anymore.

Then it hit me like a ton of books.

When I listen to audiobooks, I play the books at a speed that is 1.75 times faster than the original speed. Technology is amazing, and Audible cuts the spaces in between words so that I can consume my books faster. There were times when I would listen to the audiobooks in my car on a walk in my neighborhood in South Park, and I would realize that I just completely tuned out. I didn’t remember what I had just read, but I didn’t care and still enjoyed the experience.

If this same phenomenon, a sort of literally hypnosis, happened when I was reading a physical book, then I would have reread the paragraph or sentence or section until I was sure I consumed and comprehended the material. When I read a physical book, I stopped tuning out and sinking into the material. It was sort of like listening to someone speak and asking them to repeat the last sentence they just said because I couldn’t understand it. No one wants to talk to that person.

I didn’t used to read this way. I used to be able to consume books, to become lost in their worlds, and to see reading as leisure and not drudgery. How did this happen?

Well, it’s probably years of school. Years of analysis. Years of critical thinking. Years of trying to deconstruct works of literature to figure out how to put them back together.

I had to stop. I had to learn to read again.

Now, I’m reading books the way I listen to them. I’m not worrying about every word, every sentence. I’m trying to leave this world and enter the one created by the author.

I’ve heard similar problems from many of my friends. They say it’s hard for them to read when they come home from work, but they have no problem watching Netflix. And I’m not judging. But I think many people in my generation and younger are falling victim to an education system, a community, a culture, that demands we interpret books rather than experience them.

How Cal Newport and Digital Minimalism Influenced My Life and Blog

Over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about what this blog means to me and how it fits into my life, and I hadn’t realized how much Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism has changed my entire perception of my work and digital life. I started this blog when I first began freelancing almost eight years ago, chronicling my journey to building a life around writing. Now, I write every single day, tallying up words for novels, essays, and short stories while working on my craft within my career as a digital marketing professional. I have a great career where I help tell stories for universities.

So, I’ve been thinking, where does this blog fit into my life that I’m no longer a freelancer?

Honestly, my blog exhausted me (in a similar way to my podcast, The Working Poet Radio Show), because it began to seem like a burden rather than a passion. I know that sounds awful, especially to those people who have read or listened, but what I noticed is that the reason these projects were feeling like a burden was: 1. I was really busy at work, writing, and with my family, so something had to give. 2. I was focused on the wrong metrics — organic traffic, shares, page views — and not connecting with an audience.

As a digital marketing professional, I have learned to realize the value and the tools to increasing a digital presence, and I still see the value in this for any writing professional, but they consume me. I dedicate my day to helping our clients achieve these goals, and I thought, well, shouldn’t I be doing the same thing for my own blog? I pursued writing for this blog in the same way I approached my work: SEO optimized blog posts, listicles, social boosting. But it struck me this week: I don’t care about those things anymore for my own personal work. They are exhausting.

My thoughts have really started to change after reading Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism.” It’s a book that explores a lifestyle where you use digital technologies to support value, true value, rather than allowing the behavioral techniques that Silicon Valley — and digital marketing professionals like myself — employ so that a user keeps scrolling, keeps sharing, keeps you on your device. Newport’s book proved to be one of the most useful books I have ever read, and it helped me reorientate myself to what I care about: building a career and a community, writing books, and being there for my family.

Because of this book, I have written six chapters of a new novel and read 18 books in a month and a half, which I will catalogue at the end of this blog and flag the ones I recommend.  During this time, I’ve come to a conclusion: I need to start writing without caring about being read. Well, maybe that’s not right. Clearly, I want to care about an audience. Maybe it’s more on the lines of: Be yourself and your audience will find you. That could be it. I don’t know. Realize what you value and focus on that…maybe. I don’t know.

Books:

  • The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantu (Recommend. Reminded of Kerouac if he was working at the border)
  • The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascareenhas (Don’t recommend)
  • Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport (One of the most useful books I’ve ever read)
  • How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper (Recommend)
  • Ultralearning, Scott H. Young
  • Churchgoers, Patrick Coleman (Alert, San Diego author)
  • This is Not Propaganda, Pete Pomeranstev (Awesome read)
  • Writing to Persuade, Trish Hall
  • The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (Excellent, party time)
  • The War of Kindness, Jamil Zaki (Pass)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
  • The Whole Brain Child, Daniel Siegel (Awesome)
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker (Incredible style book)
  • Paper Towns, John Green (Amazing!)
  • The Disordered Mind, Eric R. Kandel
  • Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger (Not as good as I remembered)