A few years ago I realized how little information I retained after reading a book; it was frustrating almost to the point of wondering why I read in the first place. I found some consolation in the fact that during the act of reading there is an immediate pleasure to be gleaned, but I still felt like I was missing something if there was no long-term benefit.
To quell this concern, I began dedicating an index card to each book and writing down at least one thing from the book that was worth remembering. In some of my lighter fare, this was no easy task. For instance, I recorded this valuable tidbit from the author Ann Rule’s true crime novel Bitter Harvest about a serial killer: If the food you are served tastes funny, stop eating immediately.
More substantive books often provide ideas for a magazine column. However, I have finished books stacked like a complex polytonal chord on my desk that may never see the light of day as a column, so I thought I would provide a beneficial takeaway or two from each one.
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
I almost felt guilty reading this one. Machiavellian and heartless in many ways, the book is a history of how humanity has often ruthlessly sought power. Nonetheless, the examples in the book were captivating. While there are many ideas I did not find palatable, the book has helped me to be on the lookout for those who might try to use unsavory power tactics on me. Here are two of the laws I found interesting and helpful:
Law 1: Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite – inspire fear and insecurity.
Law 13: When asking for people’s help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.
The Power of Negative Thinking by Bobby Knight
Iconic and controversial basketball coach Bobby Knight was known for his violent outbursts and volatile temper. But he was also a great coach in many ways, winning three NCAA championships at the University of Indiana.
While I have spent most of my life trying not to worry, I learned that worry isn’t so bad. Knight cites a study purporting that people who plan and worry tend to stay healthier and live longer than those who don’t. In a nutshell, individuals without worry who carry an excess of optimism may feel so invincible that they don’t take reasonable precautions.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
I’ve had many quiet students over the years. Because I am an extrovert, I have sometimes wondered if introverts are actually happy people. How can someone be happy just sitting there, not saying anything? I read this book to find out. This book is an essential read if you want to understand all of your students.
We perceive talkers as better leaders and smarter than quiet types, but this is untrue. Introverts are excellent at leading initiative-takers and go-getters, giving them direction and focus. They lead but know when to get out of the way. Extroverts, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on things that they risk ignoring the good ideas of others, allowing them to lapse into inactivity.
One other idea I liked: Group work is overrated; valuable work can be done alone. Mention this at your next committee meeting.
My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossell
Many researchers believe that people with anxious temperaments are better employees. Provided that they can avoid full-blown anxiety disorders, they are generally conscientious, well-prepared, and attentive friends. Furthermore, worriers who are smart tend to be the most productive of all. The author intertwines his own experiences with history and research to weave a frank and darkly humorous but fascinating account of anxiety. You’ll find it hard to believe that any one person can harbor all the fears that Stossell does. I didn’t know such people existed. But don’t worry, Stossell has managed to be successful.
The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli
Band: A group formed half-heartedly in high school in the hope of meeting girls. Starts out by mastering the riff from Smoke on the Water and progresses to three-hour rehearsals in the drummer’s garage. Much goes into discussion of their name ranging from “Bilbo’s Hat” to “Frothing Mongoose.”
Musician: A person who is genetically incapable of feeling shame or guilt over being supported by his girlfriend.
Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings
Jennings, the Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time champion, examines sayings that your parents told you during your formative years. For example, we were told, “Never run with scissors.” There are records of scissor injuries dating back as far as 1880, some of which involve running. However, according to Jennings, cutting with scissors is a vastly bigger problem. Surprisingly, in some cases, buttock lacerations outnumber injuries caused by running. “Don’t sit on scissors” would probably be a better admonishment for your students.
The Power of Body Language: How to Succeed in Every Business and Social Encounter by Tonya Reiman
Research says that 93% of our interpersonal communication is nonverbal. Emerging science in many fields of study suggests that nonverbal signals are the most honest and reliable sources of communication. The problem is that we do not pay enough attention to these nonverbal signals.
Reiman discusses what she calls the five immutable truths of body language:
Body language is constant. You always communicate, whether it’s your body’s stance, your facial expressions, or even the cut of your clothes.
Body language is always determined by context. Different social or cultural situations call for different uses of body language. Successful people understand this, but remain true to themselves.
Body language can never be judged based on one signal. Covering the mouth is often a sign of deception, but not always. One has to look at a group of gestures to be more accurate in any assessment. (The book discusses this more in depth.)
Body language reveals the discrepancies between what a person says and what a person truly believes. When someone’s spoken language and body language do not match up, there is a disconnect and incongruence results.
Microexpressions, brief flashes or gestures betray inner feelings, are where true communication takes place. They are next to impossible to control, and you can see them in someone else’s face if you are alert and watching.
The Humming Effect: Sound Healing for Health and Happiness by Jonathan Goldman and Andi Goldman
Whenever my wife is in a particularly good mood, she will walk around the house performing various tasks while humming. Intrigued, I decided to do a little research on humming, and this was the first book I purchased. Although it wasn’t the angle on humming I was looking for, it had some interesting ideas.
The authors purport that the simple act of humming helps lower stress levels and blood pressure, enhances sleep, increases melatonin production, releases endorphins, and creates new neural pathways in the brain. They also describe humming as an internal massage that can heal many maladies like headaches. Sustained humming did get rid of a headache that I had, so I am one for one in my own personal experiment. As for helping me go to sleep, my humming worked for me, but kept my wife up. There’s a lot of sense and research to what the authors say, and they provide exercises that you can do. I lack the discipline to do them each day, but next time I have a headache, I’m going to hum and shoot for two for two.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
This interesting, but not earth-shattering book describes 161 entries about the daily routines developed by some of the world’s most creative and successful artists. George Gershwin (1898-1937) was said to have never relaxed. He typically worked twelve hours a day, beginning in the late morning and going until past midnight. He was dismissive of inspiration, believing that if he waited for the muse, he would only write three songs a year. Gershwin is quoted as saying, “like the pugilist, the songwriter must always keep in training.”
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
This is a very interesting cultural history of memory and how many great feats of memory are actually a skill that can be learned by anyone. The brain is an organ liable to change, capable of reorganizing itself and adapting to new kinds of sensory input, a concept known as neuroplasticity. In other words, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Our brains don’t remember all types of information equally well. We are exceptional at remembering visual imagery, but typically terrible at remembering other kinds of information like lists of words and numbers. Convert something unmemorable into a series of engrossing visual images and mentally arranging them within an imagined space and suddenly those forgettable items become unforgettable. Based on this concept, the book teaches how to create what are called “memory palaces” to retain information. The technique is practical and amazing.
To remember people’s names, associate the sound of a person’s name with something you can clearly imagine. It’s all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person’s face to a visual memory connected to the person’s name. When you need to reach back and remember the person’s name at some later date, the image you created will pop back in your mind.
Conducting with Feeling by Frederick Harris, Jr.
Aesthetician Suzanne Langer believes that tonal structures we call music bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling. Further, she regards artistic training as the education of feeling. Conducting students must think outside the box when it comes to the parameters of beat patterns. One innovative approach is not using any beat patterns at all during the first four weeks of a ten-week conducting course. This promotes feeling and the conveyance of the music without being tied down by measures and bar lines.
I am hoping that several of these books will soon turn into a full column, but until then I’ll have to be satisfied with using these takeaways to hum away headaches, avoid sitting on scissors, hunt for microexpressions, and worry about what my next bite of food tastes like.