Back to fiction… I remember hearing about Wool when it launched; it was self-published on Amazon in installments. I read a few of the early installments but didn’t complete the online series or buy the book. Wool got so popular, Howey turned it into a best-selling novel. A year before I started writing, something motivated me to find and read Wool… I think I was on a post-apocalyptic jag.
I enjoyed the story and characters. Most importantly, the writing seemed like… something I could do. The prose wasn’t Hemingway or Murukami or Joyce. I later realized Howey did subtle things I didn’t notice at first, such as uniform chapters, classical character arcs, deep explorations of themes, and political opinion. I used to warm up my writing sessions by copying blocks of his writing… the mundane stuff, like how an author jumps between memories and dialogue, or changes scenes. Wool changed my life because it gave me the confidence to write.
Another life-changing non-fiction book is Born to Run by Chris McConnell, released in 2011 to great fanfare in the triathlon community. The founder of Slowtwitch called it an industry-shaking book. It made me an advocate of natural footwear, especially for running shoes. Since reading, I’ve worn either sneakers with zero-drop or .2 mm drop. I also look for a wide, natural toe-box because of this book. It literally changed the way I move.
The premise is humans are born to run and the stuff we put on our feet only gets in the way and causes injuries. So, the less drop and more “natural” room feet have, the better. I now (when not fighting through weird injuries) wear New Balance Minimus. Turns out they aren’t truly minimalist shoes because they have structure in the mid-foot… but I like them. This thinking about movement and footwear migrated across all facets of my life. I’m barefoot most of the time. When I do wear shoes, they are Vivo Barefoot or other all-natural brands. When I stopped competing in tri’s, I went to the gym to work on functional strength and am interested in natural movement classes. All of it from BTR.
Besides footwear, BTR gave me an early look into a current theme; the emphasis on movement/standing and the dangers of office and sedentary life. It’s pretty accepted, now, that sitting all day in a chair, in air conditioning, is terrible for your health. BTR examined this fifteen years ago, with stories of how our primitive ancestors ran for hours a day, then squatted around a fire at night.
Another life-changing non-fiction book is Getting Things Done (original edition), the perennial bestseller. I wonder how many of the millions of purchasers actually read it, or, like me, implemented the prescribed strategies and solutions.
It only took a few pages to know this book was gold. The author, David Allen, tells a story about how he would sometimes write lists (before his GTD system) and, if even if he completed a task earlier, he’d write the task just for the satisfaction of crossing it off the list. I do the same… I lean toward this kind thinking and behavior, which I’m sure is the reason the book’s concepts land with me. There are plenty of descriptions of his system elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here. On a daily and weekly basis, I follow the most basic habits. Inbox zero. It’s a pain in the ass, but I don’t miss mails or have thousands of unopened items in my Gmail inbox. I was on a presentation with a vendor and his email tab read over 9k unread mails. My God. Anyway, that’s a daily habit.
Weekly, I have a “meeting” with myself where I review the previous and preview the next week’s calendar and tasks and merge my projects into a “Projects” list. I then consult this list daily and turn project items into daily tasks. I also keep a “Someday/Maybe” list (as a parking lot) for projects that aren’t on the main list. This isn’t exactly what GTD calls for, but it works for me. I have done none of the monthly or quarterly check-ins in years, but I used to… and should do them again. The other daily habit I took from GTD is managing my day-to-day with a task list, and I dutifully check off items as I complete them. I’ve followed this protocol for so long its second nature and literally a part of my life.
After my brief stint as an Environmental Health Specialist, I switched to a technology career. As aforementioned, my schooling was in Environmental Studies (policy, light science), so I spent the first part of my “new” career reading and learning about the profession. Most books in the space were very technical and focused on a particular product or skill or language (“Visual Basic for Dummies!”)… and I certainly churned through many of them. But one book shone above the rest: The Pragmatic Programmer.
My wife never comments on the books I read, but even she noticed how much time I spent with this book over the years. TPP is the polar opposite of a tech book focused on a specific topic. Instead, it addressed how a programmer (somewhat dated term, now commonly called a developer) should think about their work and career habits, training and approach to the work. So many of the lessons imparted in these pages made their way to my professional and everyday life. Thomas and Hunt, the authors, had a theory/approach called “Tracer Bullet Development”. Basically, they prescribed building a very basic, working part of all aspects of a system to make sure the idea would work… don’t build the middle layer completely, then move to the front end, then to the db and, only after months or years of work, discover basic holes in the concept. Get all the pieces framed out and fire off a tracer bullet to ensure the concept is sound and they aren’t major obstacles (performance between layers, security, technologies that don’t talk to each other, etc.). I’ve championed the TBD approach in every software project I’ve led or managed since, with great results. And it crosses over into other parts of life as well. TPP is full of quick (but deep) lessons like this, including a heuristic about lazy programmers… the lazier the better (a cheeky way to describe programmers loathing of repetitive tasks, so they lean on automation, which removes risk of error and forgetting. Useful well beyond programming * see finance gurus*. I’ve used TBD thinking everywhere in my life).
Not only is TPP chock-full of fantastic lessons and advice, but the book itself is brilliant. The authors clearly concentrated not only the prose but the text, layout, etc. And use it as a lesson in automation, layout, etc. DRY… Don’t Repeat Yourself. YAGNI… You ain’t gonna need it. Don’t Live with broken windows. Certainly, in the over twenty years since (my version) of the book published, a lot has changed and some of their advice seems dated. Thomas and Hunt published an updated version; I haven’t read it because I don’t actively practice the craft anymore… based on how much the original version influenced me, I probably should.
I recently worked on the following writing prompt: “Write about reading and books that have changed your life.”… a different question than writing about your favorite books or the best-written books. I’ll share the most notable books in a series of posts.
In high school, I joined a club called S.A.V.E., Students Against Violating the Environment. My involvement led me to explore magazines and books around environmentalism. In the late 80s, with Bush Sr. as president, a huge groundswell emerged… I was too young to realize the momentum was new and reveled in my new focus. The local library and bookstores (in the local mall, B.Dalton and Waldenbooks) had two types of books and magazines; dry books, like Silent Spring or magazines from the DEP (NJ Department of Environmental Protection), with bland covers and articles that seemed important but boring. But there was Buzzworm magazine. Glossy, with cool nature photos on the cover (close-ups of colorful Amazonian frogs) and good, readable articles.
One of the repeated references in Buzzworm was to Edward Abbey. I hadn’t heard of him or his books titled The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire. I don’t remember how I got hold of these books; I liked Desert Solitaire and loved TMWG.
TMWG is a story of a band of rag-tag environmentalists (a dentist, his younger girlfriend, a river guide and a radical Vietnam vet) who try to stem the inevitable tide of development and accompanying destruction of the American desert with sabotage. The characters were other-worldly to my suburban NJ self, preachy, righteous, driven. And it was an adventure story with suspense and drama; the characters camped out under the stars and drank beer and swapped lovers. The plot was wild and appealed to my teen desire for rebellion and adventure. And, along with other media swirling around, solidified my passion to make environmentalism a career. TMWG sent me on a path to an environmental college (Cook College, Rutgers) and my major (International Environmental Studies) and my first job (Health Inspector, now properly referred to as an Environmental Health Specialist).
I haven’t re-read TMWG in years. Will my jaded self react to the characters and their passions and preaching differently? Negatively? I’m way on the other side of the fence, a corporate employee with two kids and a wife in the ‘burbs. And, most notably, any form of terrorism did not age well. I read this twelve or thirteen years before 9-11 when terrorist was something that happened on the news in London or Beruit.
Abbey turned out to be a difficult as well. Just as my younger self was a fan of his fiction, I devoured much of his non-fiction. Mostly he wrote about the desert and his attachment to the land, his thoughts on land use and people in suits and the environmental movement writ large. As a teen, I read and absorbed these thoughts as truth, the righteous path. Now, when I’ve tried to read him, it comes across as grumpy and limited. And, let’s be fair, I’m the bad guy in his stories now… when I was younger, I assumed I’d be the fire ranger sleeping under the stars. Instead, I have a house in the burbs and two Hondas. There’s another aspect of Abbey that’s hard as well; he doesn’t come across well compared with modern sensibilities, with less than enlightened views on women and equality and race.