The Books That Stuck With Me This Year
I couldn’t stop thinking about anxiety, the history of drugs, and mass extinction
I read fewer books this year than I normally do; I spent some of my “reading time” writing instead, but I still was able to engage with dozens of books. Some of them, I skimmed, looking for interesting information that could go into my classes or my writing. I forgot about a lot of these soon after I finished them. Others, I engaged with more deeply.
I’m nerdy about keeping track of what I’ve read — I log each book in a spreadsheet and rate it. It’s interesting to look back at the end of the year, because I usually find that I have no recollection of a couple of the books to which I gave great ratings, but I think about a few of the books that I rated lower all the time. Here are the books I couldn’t get out of my head this year.
The first book that stuck with me is a self-help book. I read a lot of these this year, which I guess makes sense, given how challenging life has felt. Sometimes, with the tragedy and chaos unfolding around me — a pandemic, climate change, and threats to our democracy, just for starters — I felt like I needed some help with anxiety.
I found Sarah Wilson’s book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful to be the most memorable of these. Wilson, a journalist and writer, tells the story of her struggle with severe mental illness. A lot of what’s in here can be found in other anxiety self-help books (and I’ve read a lot of them!) — she recommends gratitude, meditation, spending time in nature, etc... But what I liked about this book was Wilson’s central conceit, which comes from a Chinese proverb. The proverb teaches that you can’t defeat a monster without first learning to see how it’s beautiful.
Over the course of this memoir, Wilson realizes that her mind is built in a certain way. Struggling against this reality is relatively pointless — it will end in anger and frustration. In the end, she advocates management and acceptance. Wilson seems to have learned methods to blunt the extremes of her anxiety, but she also realizes that she’ll never get rid of it. There’s no point in fighting a war against your anxiety; you’ll never win. Instead, she strives to see what is beautiful about having an anxious mind and learn to live with it. I was struck by her vulnerability and bravery, and the wisdom she showed in learning to live with an anxious mind.
The two history (or history-adjacent) books that stuck with me were about drugs. I don’t know what that says about me, but it is what it is.
The first was The Immortality Key by Brian Mukarescu. It’s great for a couple of reasons. First, the book makes a truly extraordinary claim. Mukarescu argues that many ancient religious ceremonies — including, perhaps, the early Christian Eucharist — centered around drugs, probably psychedelics. In his telling, the profound religious experiences that people had in the ancient world were likely aided by rituals that incorporated psychedelic fungi.
A book like this could have easily tipped into Da Vinci Code territory, but this one doesn’t. Mukarescu is pretty careful with his scholarship, acknowledging what he can prove and what he can’t. At the end of the book, he has set up a tantalizing mystery more than he’s made an open-and-shut case. The best part about the book is that it is written more like a hybrid between a monograph and a thriller. You get to go with Mukarescu as he travels around the world in search of proof for his revolutionary claims. This book opened up a totally new perspective on the ancient world and the religious rituals that I grew up with but never really understood.
The other history-of-drugs book that I enjoyed this year was Michael Pollan’s This is Your Mind on Plants. In the book, Pollan looks at three drugs that have affected human societies — opium, caffeine, and mescaline. He tells interesting stories about each of these drugs and the role that they have played in his life. What I found most interesting was the section about caffeine. Pollan makes a persuasive case that the real difference between caffeine and other drugs is that the effects of caffeine make people more useful to the capitalist system, not less. Because bosses liked the ways in which caffeine made their workers more productive, caffeine became an integral part of modern society, while other drugs were generally labeled as dangerous and undesirable.
This year, as we literally risked people’s lives to keep the economy humming, Pollan’s argument opened my eyes to the ways in which the imperatives of capitalism shape our assumptions about all sorts of things — even a morning cup of coffee.
The final book that has stuck with me is Bewilderment by Richard Powers. It’s a novel about a father and son who have recently lost their wife and mother. The son is likely on the spectrum; both of them are struggling with grief. The son, because he pays attention to the world in different ways than most people do, can’t let go of the mass extinction taking place all around him. It does not make any sense to him that everyone else can see what’s happening to the earth, compartmentalize it, and just go on with their day. He’s right, factually and morally, but his wholly appropriate reaction to he truth makes him a misfit. His father has to decide whether to force his son to conform to a way of life that’s ravaging the living world or help him to fight the injustices he feels in such a raw way.
This is a very specific story, but it really spoke to something that I’ve experienced a lot lately, something that I think a lot of us deal with. We see terrible things happening — your mileage may vary, but I’ll mention again the triad of doom that I referenced above: climate change, COVID, and threats to democracy — and they alarm us.
It really feels like things are falling apart a lot of the time. But few of the people in our society seem to be really grasping what’s going on. We might read an article about the latest way in which the world is falling apart, but we don’t really know what to do about it. The problem seems too big, and too long-term; meanwhile, we have to go to work or make dinner or pay the bills. So we just kind of go on with life while an alarm is going off somewhere deep inside us. I often feel bad for not really responding to the alarm; I also feel like a misfit for not just going along with the flow of society.
Maybe everybody else around me is doing the same thing — holding it together for the moment while quietly panicking about the runaway train we’re all on. Maybe not. But I saw something of myself in the young boy at the center of Bewilderment who just couldn’t understand why everybody was so calm all the time while the world seemed to be falling apart around them.
What have you read this year that’s stuck with you?
Originally published on Medium.
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About the Creator
History, Environment, and Politics, mostly in that order. Shorter stuff at worldhistoryfacts.com.
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