January is a month for diet books, exercise manuals and a host of self-improvement programs. The holiday cookies have been eaten, the Champagne bottles drained, and here we are, lumpy and disappointed in ourselves, filled with the desire to do better in the coming year. But what if we upped our game, worried less about our bodies and more about our souls? Given the season, not to mention the current political climate, I thought this would be a good moment to recommend some books that could help quiet the mind, address priorities, and lead us to be better, kinder, more helpful people.
You may be thinking, wait a minute, can books really do all of that?
Yes, they can.
Let’s start simple. My friend Jim Fox (the same Jim Fox who got me reading Salinger again) recently sent me a copy of Pema Chödrön’s classic How to Meditate. I’d read it before, but when I had a new copy in my hands I read it again. Surely you’ve seen those reports on the endless positive benefits of meditation (if not, go ahead and read Dan Harris’s 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story. It’s not great literature, but it’s short and very convincing as to meditation’s many benefits.) Chödrön’s voice is wise, funny, and deeply human. She focuses on technique: how to sit, how to breathe. She dispels the notion that meditation is supposed to free us from thought and make us feel better, and replaces it with the idea that meditation will help us be more in control of our own minds.
Sit with that for a bit. It’s a good place to start.
After How to Meditate, you might want to move on to Mark Epstein’s new book Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, which comes out January 16. Epstein is both a psychiatrist and a Buddhist teacher, and in this volume he brings together his knowledge from both fields. The benefits for the reader are considerable. How many of us will ever have a great psychiatrist or a great Buddhist teacher, much less both? By using the Eight Fold Path, he points the reader towards a more peaceful existence. The chapter on Right Speech alone is so helpful (all the stupid stories we tell ourselves! All the stupid things we say!), it’s worth the price of the book.
But maybe you like your advice without a Buddhist bent, in which case I’d point you to Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley. Oh, how I loved this book. It’s packed full of science that is both fascinating and so well written. Not only do we learn about why we sleep and how, and why and how all animals sleep. (Brown bats set the record at nineteen hours a night, while elephants clock in at a paltry four. Fish and whales can sleep half a brain at a time! Sharks have no eyelids! I could go on.) The book also explains all the benefits of a good night’s sleep, as well as the significant detriment to skimping on sleep, then it proceeds to tell us how to get better sleep. This may be the most essential component to having a better year and a better life.
And once your life is better you can start thinking about how to help others, which brings me to my point: two books by Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, first published in 2011, and his new book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. I want to walk around with a stack of them tucked under my arm so I can hand them out to everyone I see. Are you worried about the state of the world? Read these books. Wondering what you can do to make a difference? Read these books. Wondering how meditating or church-going can actually translate into making a difference in your community? Read these books. Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the world’s largest program for gang member rehabilitation. He’ll make you laugh, cry, and re-evaluate long-held beliefs, and he’ll show you what a good heart in action looks like. I read one and listened to the other, so I can assure you that if you like audio, these are excellent audiobooks read by the author (available on Libro.fm, the audiobook app that supports independent bookstores!).
Greg is coming to Parnassus on January 29, so please, please try to read one of these books before then. If you read the books in February you will be deeply miserable knowing he was here and you missed him. Bring your church, your book club, your school, your neighborhood association, your office mates, your family, your friends. I’ve heard Greg speak before, and I count it as one of the great experiences of my life. You might want to listen to his recent interview on Fresh Air as well.
I think this is a moment in which everyone is looking for an answer, and I sincerely believe the answer is the kind of compassion and kinship Greg Boyle lives. I know it’s the message I want to bring into the New Year.
The Parnassus family is so grateful for all the love and support you gave us in 2017, and we’re looking forward to reading along with you and being part of your community in 2018.
Happy New Year!
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To order any of these books and read along with Ann, just click the titles above. And join us for Gregory Boyle’s event on January 29, 2017, at 6:30 p.m.!