Reflections


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Ani Pema Chodron, the author of the book, gave a commencement address to the 2014 graduating class of Naropa, University of Boulder, Colorado. She did so, to keep her promise with her grand daughter, who was amongst the graduating class. The speech went viral on the net and this book is an offshoot of it. It contains the full text of the speech and a Q&A session. The title of the speech and hence the book, is inspired from a quote by Samuel Beckett. 

The author says that she had received one of the best pieces of advice, while learning how to teach.

I was being taught how to teach, as many of us were. And the instructions I received were to prepare well, know your subject, and then go in there with no note cards. Honestly, that is the best advice for life: no note cards. Just prepare well and know what you want to do. Give it your best, but you really don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. And note cards have limited usefulness.

The crux of the speech is author’s take on how to fail ? Most of the strategies that we adopt when faced with failure fall in to two categories. We either blame it on something external or become excessively critical about our self. How does one handle a failure ?

The author says,

We move away from the rawness, of holding the rawness of vulnerability in our heart, by blaming it on the other. Getting curious about outer circumstances and how they are impacting you, noticing what words come out and what your internal discussion is, this is the key.

So sometimes you can take rawness and vulnerability and turn it into creative poetry, writing, dance, music, song. Artists have done this from the beginning of time. Turn it into something that communicates to other people, and out of this raw and vulnerable space, communication really happens.

It’s in that space-when we aren’t masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away-that our best qualities begin to shine.

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There is no denying about the importance of Silence and Solitude in one’s life. For me, they have always provided an appropriate environment to learn and understand a few things deeply. Drawing from that experience, I strongly feel one should actively seek some amount of "silent time" in one’s life. Is it difficult for a person leading a married life, to carve out spaces of silence? Not necessarily. I remember reading a book by Anne D.LeClaire, in which the author writes about her experience of remaining completely silent on the first and third Mondays of every month. Anne explains that this simple practice brought tremendous amount of calmness in her family life. The family members unknowingly start giving importance to "pauses", the "pauses" that actually make the sentence meaningful, the "pauses" that make the music enjoyable, the "pauses" that make our lives meaningful. Indeed many have written about the transformative experience of silence. But how many of us consciously seek silence and more importantly incorporate in our daily lives ? In the hubbub of our lives and in our over-enthusiasm for acquiring/reaching/grabbing something that is primarily externally gratifying, we often turn our back on "silence" and consequently deny or at least partly deny those experiences that are internally gratifying.

I picked up this book almost 2 months ago. For various reasons, it remained in my inventory for quite some without me having a peaceful go at it. In mid-December 2015, after living in Mumbai for 6.5 years, I decided to leave Mumbai for personal reasons. I had spent the first few weeks of December shipping most of my stuff and vacating the rented flat. Those weeks were undeniably very exhausting as I had a ton of books that had to be sorted, categorized and shipped to different places. Once I had shipped everything, the house was literally empty. Except for a few clothes of mine, and my Sitar, the house was totally empty and silent. For some reason, I felt totally liberating in that empty and silent house. In that context, I set out to read this book. In this post, I will briefly summarize the main points from the book.

Introduction

The author starts off by talking about the excessive importance we give to material comforts and affective concerns

In our daily lives many of us spend most of our time looking for comforts-material comforts and affective comforts-in order to merely survive. That takes all our time. These are what we might call the daily concerns. We are preoccupied with our daily concerns: how to have enough money, food, shelter, and other material things. We also have affective concerns: whether or not some particular person loves us, whether or not our job is secure. We worry all day because of those kinds of questions. We may be trying to find a relationship that is good enough to endure, one that is not too difficult. We’re looking for something to rely on.

We may be spending 99.9 percent of our time worrying about these daily concerns-material comforts and affective concerns-and that is understandable, because we need to have our basic needs met to feel safe. But many of us worry far, far beyond having our needs met. We are physically safe, our hunger is satisfied, we have a roof over our heads, and we have a loving family; and still we can worry constantly.

The deepest concern in you, as in many of us, is one you may not have perceived, one you may not have heard. Every one of us has an ultimate concern that has nothing to do with material or affective concerns. What do we want to do with our life? That is the question. We are here, but why are we here? Who are we, each of us individually? What do we want to do with our life? These are questions that we don’t typically have (or make) the time to answer.

These are not just philosophical questions. If we’re not able to answer them, then we don’t have peace-and we don’t have joy, because no joy is possible without some peace. Many of us feel we can never answer these questions. But with mindfulness, you can hear their response yourself, when you have some silence within.

What we all need is "silence" to tune in to ourselves.

A Steady diet of noise

This chapter is mainly about realizing the kind of noise that pervades our minds. Cows, goats and buffalo chew their food, swallow it, then regurgitate and rechew it multiple times. We may not be cows or buffalo, but we ruminate just the same on our thoughts – unfortunately, primarily negative thoughts. We eat them, and then we bring them up to chew again and again, like a cow chewing its cud. The author calls this incessant noise, NST (Non Stop Thinking) Radio Station. Unconsciously many of us are constantly listening to NST and do not take time out to truly listen to what our heart needs. To understand the kind of thoughts that we constantly consume via NST, the author classifies them as follows :

  1. Edible food: What we eat affects how we feel. Imagine for a second that you overeat something you like. It is similar to a seizure where you cannot control yourself and give in to it. The immediate feeling after this overdose is usually laziness, boredom and a dull brain. You try concentrating on a thing and you realize it becomes difficult. So, something as elementary as edible food that is necessary for our survival becomes nourishing or toxic, depending on what we consume, how much we consume, and how aware we are of our consumption.
  2. Sensory food: Sensory food is what we take in with our senses and our mind – everything we see, smell, touch, taste and hear. This type of food has a far more influence on how we feel. Some of us are forever open to this external world. All the windows and doors are eternally open to this external world which throws a barrage of sensory stimuli. Most of the sensory food we consume is useless at best, harmful at worst. How often we keep watching a pathetic TV program and still lack the power to shut it off ? We often become paralyzed to sensory foods and become slaves to it. Kids are often introduced video games by parents and then the sensory food that kids derive is so addictive that kids start behaving like the characters in the video game. Imagine a kid who plays a game involving violence; Do you think he will generate calmness and a sense of balance in his mind ? No way. Same is the case with conversations. Suppose you talk to a person who is full of bitterness, envy or craving. During the conversation, you take in the person’s energy of despair. Even though you had no ill-feelings in your mind to begin with, you mind will be infected with such feelings as you begin conversing with such people. One easy way to avoid such a situation is to leave such a company and go else where. If you are in a situation where you are forced to be in such a company for whatever reasons, the next best thing is to be aware of the kind of thoughts the other person is emanating. Awareness makes you immune to the toxic sensory food that you come across in your daily life.
  3. Volition: Our primary intention and motivation is another kind of food. It feeds us and gives us purpose. Like the previous kinds of food, it can be extremely nourishing or extremely toxic based on the kind of intent and motivation levels. So much of the noise around us, whether advertisements, movies, games, music, or conversation, gives us messages about what we should be doing, what we should look like, what success looks like, and who we should be. Because of all this noise, it’s rare that we pay attention to our true desire. We act, but we don’t have the space or quiet to act with intention. If what you are doing is what your heart truly desires, then the associated work becomes a bliss. You don’t have to bother how other people look at your behavior, action and work. As long as you are clear that it is what you truly enjoy and desire, there will be little chance for toxic thoughts to arise. What you truly want to do, is something that is not that easy to figure out, if you are continuously tuned out. It requires some time out from the rat race, a period of solitude that gives you space to understand yourself.
  4. Individual and Collective consciousness: Even if we go on a sensory fast, we still feed our thoughts from our consciousness. The best way to describe this is to think of it has two storeyed building. We are forever planting seeds in the lower storey of the house. The seeds could be pleasant ones or unpleasant ones. These seeds are being watered constantly by us. Which of these seeds we water, is dependent on our individual and collective consciousness. If we are in a toxic environment, automatically, without our notice, we water crappy seeds and they show their colors with vengeance, making us feel unpleasant about it. As they say, even if you take a person to Himalayas, you cannot the take the person away from him. By consciously choosing what and who you surround yourself with, is among the keys to finding more space for joy

The takeaway from this chapter is that, we need to be aware of the kind of foods we are taking in. By being aware, it is likely that toxic foods do not enter us. By being aware, it is likely that we entertain healthy foods in to us, thus turning us in to a peaceful and a wholesome person.

Radio Non Stop Thinking

The antidote to NST is mindfulness. By having mindfulness in all the activities you perform, you will be able to stop the NST radio in your head. Shifting our attention away from our thoughts to what’s really happening in the present moment is a basic practice of mindfulness. We can do it anytime, anywhere, and find more pleasure in life. Whether we’re cooking, working, brushing our teeth, washing our clothes, or eating, we can enjoy this refreshing silencing of our thoughts and our speech. Mindfulness entails finding the inner quietness.

 

Thundering Silence

Many times we consume different kinds of foods mentioned in the previous chapters as a response to the compulsive urge to avoid ourselves. Whenever we try to confront the unpleasant part of us, we know that we should be letting it go. But we hold on to it. Our "knowing that we should let it go" and we actually letting it go, are two vastly different things. The latter requires us to remain silent and go to the very source of it, acknowledge it, appreciate it for whatever it has taught in our life and then let it go. With out this phase of "examining it in silence", we will forever be trying to let it go but never actually letting it go.

What is the essence of stillness ?

When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it. Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.

The chapter’s title is "thunderous silence", a kind of silence that is  opposite to oppressive silence

Suppose you sit outside and pay attention to the sunshine, the beautiful trees, the grass, and the little flowers that are springing up everywhere. If you relax on the grass and breathe quietly, you can hear the sound of the birds, the music of the wind playing in the trees. Even if you are in a city, you can hear the songs of the birds and the wind. If you know how to quiet your churning thoughts, you don’t have to turn to mindless consumption in a futile attempt to escape from uncomfortable feelings. You can just hear a sound, and listen deeply, and enjoy that sound. There is peace and joy in your listening, and your silence is an empowered silence. That kind of
silence is dynamic and constructive. It’s not the kind of silence that represses you. In Buddhism we call this kind of silence thundering silence. It’s very eloquent, and full of energy.

The author ends the chapter with a few simple exercises that one can perform anywhere to renew yourself and energize yourself.

The Power of Stillness

The author says, we rarely notice our breathing patterns and rarely do we enjoy our breathing. Some people carry around a notion that one has to add an additional item, "Meditation" in to their agenda. However it is far easier than that. All one has to do for practicing mindfulness is to reorient yourself and remember your true intention. Quiet, mindful breathing is something you can do at any time. Wherever you are can be a sacred place, if you are there in a relaxed and serene way, following your breathing and keeping your concentration on whatever you’re doing. The simple process of sitting quietly on a regular basis can be profoundly healing. The author offers a simple exercise for beginners; dedicate five minutes every day to walking quietly and mindfully. I guess the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You can try it out and see if it calms down your mind and make you more aware of the thoughts, feelings and NST radio in your head.

Paying Attention

One of the often asked questions involves the relevance of following mindfulness during tasks that are inherently banal. The author says that by practicing mindfulness at all times, it becomes easier to access our "island of self" during the times we actually need it. A related idea is developing the capacity to be alone or being in solitude. There are two dimensions to solitude. The first is to be alone physically. The second is to be able to be yourself and stay centered even in the midst of a group. The former appears easy and latter appears difficult, though it might be appear vice-versa for a different person. Paying attention towards anything necessitates that one is comfortable with solitude, for great technologies, ideas, inventions are a result of paying deep attention on something and then actualizing the imagination in to the real world.

Cultivating Connection

One of the ways to cultivate connection with others is to listen deeply. What does it mean to listen deeply? It basically entails stopping the NST radio, being silent and truly listening to others without forming any judgment. Sometimes if you are lucky, you will befriend a person whose company you can enjoy even without talking. The mere presence of that person who is silent can make your joyful. The author says that two people being together in silence is a very beautiful way to live. Solitude is not found only by being alone in a hut deep in the forest; it is not about cutting ourselves off from civilization. We do not lose ourselves; we do not lose our mindfulness; Taking refuge in our mindful breathing, coming back to the present moment, is to take refuge in the beautiful, serene island that each of us has within. If we carve out little moments of spaciousness in the various activities of our lives for this kind of quiet, we open ourselves up to the ultimate freedom. Whoever be the person you are trying to make connection with,friend or sibling or parent or relative or colleague, spending time in silence together is one of the best ways to forge long lasting relationships.

Hacks

There are many other little hacks that the author dishes out for practicing mindfulness. Some of them are

  1. Digital Nirvana for a day
  2. Try to remain silent during a specific time period of the day or the week. I remember reading a wonderful book, titled, "Listening below the noise", in which the author follows "Silent Monday" ritual in her family. The book goes on to show innumerable benefits of this simple ritual to all her family members
  3. Some tool/gadget that reminds you to concentrate back on the present. In this context, I find Pomodoro technique to be a very effective mechanism to create a sequence of focused and relaxed times.

takeawayTakeaway : 

Irrespective of whether you take "pauses" in your life or not, I think it might be a good thing to take a "pause" and read this book. If not anything, you could find some useful hacks to lead a peaceful life.

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This book can be savored by anyone who loves silence and solitude. Solitude, in most of our lives, visits us when we are least prepared – unexpected work assignment to a different city/country, sudden hospitalization for an extended period of time, death of partner, break up etc. Most of us are ill-prepared to handle the sudden intrusion of solitude. This coupled with our childhood experiences of hyper protective parents questioning us – “Kid, you are very silent. Is everything OK with you?”— creates an unhealthy attitude towards situations where we are silent and alone.

For most part of my life I have lived alone and have enjoyed it. My life has played out in a way such that there have been prolonged periods of solitude, punctuated by skewed mix of necessary & unnecessary interactions with others. Having lived such a life, I think my mind loves anything that celebrates silence and solitude. No wonder that I could not put this book down, even while attending a conference. I took an immense liking to the book that I took every opportunity during the downtime between the talks at the conference, to lose myself in this book. One goes to a conference, not only to listen to what other people are doing in a specific field, but also to socialize. Just silently absorb the content of the talk and reflect on them. Somehow I found a strange kind of comforting feeling sitting amidst a random set of geeks and not talking to anyone. In this context, I remember something from the book Quiet, where Susan Cain says, her well groomed, well laid out office room that she had carefully prepared proved rather ineffective for writing. Instead, Starbucks outlets helped her in writing numerous drafts of the book. She says Starbucks has a unique feature, i.e. it is a place that is constantly buzzing with activity that gives a sense of community feeling and at the same time each one is minding one’s own work.

I read this book out of curiosity of finding out – What does a person who has been staying alone for twenty years got to say about solitude?

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Sara Maitland’s house(a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe)

The author refers to her previous work “The Book on Silence” and says that she had mentioned a few things relevant to “Solitude” in it. She says that she has written this book mainly to expand those thoughts. Indeed silence and solitude healthily coexist. But there are situations where you are in silence without solitude / when you experience solitude without silence. 

Being Alone in the Twenty-first century:

The first part of the book makes a case against the popular notion that seeking aloneness is not a pathological condition. Society tries to brand a person seeking alone time for an extended period of time as “sad, mad or bad”, or all the three at once. For a woman, it is even worse.

In the Middle Ages the word ‘spinster’ was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence . The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear ‘for’ such women – and now men as well – who are probably ‘sociopaths’.

Rebalancing Attitudes towards Solitude

The second part of the book gives a few ideas to strengthen your desire for and reduce your fear of solitude, ways in which you might, in practice, develop your taste for and skill at it. There are many people who actively avoid solitude. The two most common tactics for evading the terror of solitude are both singularly ineffective. The first is denigrating those who do not fear it, especially if they claim to enjoy it , and stereotyping them as ‘miserable’,‘selfish’,‘crazy’ or ‘perverse’ (sad, mad and bad). The second is infinitely extending our social contacts as a sort of insurance policy, which social media makes increasingly possible.

The book contains a set of guidelines that can be helpful in overturning negative views about solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and true capacity to enjoy it.

  • Face the fear
  • Do Something enjoyable alone : Have a balance between work time, maintenance time and leisure time.There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that doing things alone intensifies the emotional experience; sharing an experience immediately appears to dissipate our emotional responses , as though communicating it drained away the visceral sensation.
  • Explore Reverie
  • Look at Nature
  • Learn something by heart

Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Daffodils’ would have a very different effect if it ended:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
I have to rise and go and search
On Flickr, Google or YouTube.

The capacity to be creative is profoundly linked to the ability to remember: the word ‘remember’ derives from ‘re-member’, to ‘put the parts back together’. What we have memorized, learned by heart, we have internalized in a very special way. The knowledge is now part of our core self, our identity, and we can access it when we are alone: we are no longer an isolated fragment drifting in a huge void, but linked through these shared shards of culture to a larger, richer world, but without losing our ‘aloneness’. For many people this resource, this well-stocked mental larder, offers food for thought, for coherence, for security, and must be one of the factors that turns ‘isolation’ into creative solitude. This is a kind of cultural engagement that you cannot get from the web or from reading.

  • Going Solo : The author is not suggesting those “extreme adventures” that you can brag about to people around you. But something else. Read the book if you are curious.

The Joys of Solitude

The author writes about a few rewards that people who seek and experienced solitude have found :

  • A deeper consciousness of self: Behind the heavy sounding words, all it means that in solitude you know yourself better. Stripped of human interaction, you tend to be aware of your own feelings, thoughts, moods . How you deal with it is a different matter, but the very fact that you start noticing is itself a reward. People sometimes take all kinds of weird steps to experience conscious solitude in their lives. Here’s one such example of author’s friend, Jill Langford.

About twenty-five years into my marriage, with seven children, I asked my husband for a one-man tent for Christmas. A little taken aback, perhaps, he nonetheless granted my request and bought me a super little army tent or bivouac shell that you honestly couldn’t squeeze two people into. You erect it, quite easily and quickly, crawl in on your belly, then turn over onto your back, clutching a sleeping bag, raise your knees and wriggle your legs, then bottom, then torso into it. Et voilà. You stay in that position till morning, then you do the same in reverse. There is no room to sit up and you’d be a fool not to have a wee before retiring, since the whole procedure is well-nigh impossible in the middle of the night. I use this little tent just whenever I feel the need to take off, alone, for whatever reason. For me, it works like a battery charger when I feel weighed down by the burdens of living in community and am dragging my feet. Actually I don’t use it very much, but knowing it’s there to use if I want to is sometimes enough in itself to bring a spring back into my step.

  • Attunement to Nature: Over and over again individuals report these extraordinary, mystical experiences when they are alone in nature. It never seems to happen if you are with anyone else, perhaps because we all have a deep inhibition against exposing ourselves so nakedly to another, even a beloved other.
  • Relationship with God: If you are an atheist, it could just mean an entity beyond your sensory perception. There is no major religious or spiritual tradition that does not recognize solitude as a part of the necessary practice for revelation, intimacy and knowledge.
  • Creativity: We all have experienced at some point or the other—creativity somehow seems to go up when we are do things alone. We understand things better. We learn and experience things more deeply in solitude. Solitude is a well-established ‘school for genius’, and the outpouring of creativity is one of its promised joys. In learning to be solitary and happy with it, you can prepare yourself for this sort of creativity.
  • Freedom: There are two types of freedom, 1) “freedom from”, 2), ”freedom to”. In our society, the former is increasing becoming possible like freedom from poverty, pain or fear, financial insecurity etc. Solitude is associated with the latter kind of freedom

In The Stations of Solitude, the philosopher Alice Koller defined freedom as ‘Not only having no restraints, but also being self-governing according to laws of your own choosing … where your choices spring from a genuine sense of what your life is and can become.’ In this short passage she moves from ‘no restraints’ (freedom from) to being ‘self-governing’ (freedom to). In order to achieve this second sort of freedom she suggests that you need a ‘genuine sense of what your life is and can become’. That is to say, you need a consciousness of yourself, and we have already seen how solitude enhances and develops that self-awareness which is the first step towards being self-governing.

Being solitary is being alone well : being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others.

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This book is a TED book, i.e. a book paired with a TED talk so that ideas mentioned in the talk are explored in a little more detail. At the same time, TED books are intended to be short so that one can comfortably read it one sitting. This book is about 75 pages. The author gives various anecdotes from his life and encourages the reader to find “Nowhere” in one’s daily/weekly schedule so as to practice “Stillness”.

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out. Setting an auto-response on my e-mail, turning off the TV when I’m on the treadmill, trying to find a quiet place in the midst of a crowded day or city – all quickly open up an unsuspected space


When friends ask me for suggestions about where to go on vacation, I‘ll sometimes ask if they want to try Nowhere, especially if they don’t want to have to deal with visas and injections and long lines at the airport. One of the beauties of Nowhere is that you never know where you’ll end up when you head in its direction, and though the horizon is unlimited, you may have very little sense of what you’ll see along the way. The deeper blessing is that it can get you as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.

— Pico Iyer

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For those of us who are born before 1985, it is likely that we have seen two worlds; one, a world that wasn’t dependent on net and another, where our lives are dominated/controlled by the web and social media. The author says that that given this vantage point, we have a unique perspective of how things have changed. It is impossible to imagine a life without print. However before the 1450’s Guttenberg printing press invention, the knowledge access was primarily through oral tradition. Similarly may be a decade or two from now, our next generation would be hard-pressed to imagine a life without connectivity. There is a BIG difference between the Guttenberg’s revolution and Internet—the pace. Even though the printing press was invented around 1450’s, it was not until 19th century that enough people were literate, for the written word to influence the society. In contrast, we have seen both the offline and online world in less than one life time.

We are in a sense a straddle generation, with one foot in the digital pond and the other on the shore, and are experiencing a strange suffering as we acclimatize. In a single generation, we are the only people in the history experiencing massive level of change. The author is not critical about technology, after all technology is neither good nor bad. It is neutral. Firstly something about the word in  title—Absence. It is used as a catch-all term for any activity that does not involve internet, mobile, tablets, social media etc. Given this context, the author structures the content of the book in to two parts. The first part of the book explores certain aspects of our behavior that have dramatically changed and we can see the consequences of it all around us. The second part of the book is part reflection, part experimentation by the author to remain disconnected in this hyper connected world. In this post, I will summarize a few sections of the book.

Kids these days

Increasingly the kids are living in a world where the daydreaming silences in the lives are filled by social media notifications and burning solitudes are extinguished by constant yapping on the social networks/phones and playing video games. That said, what is role of a parent? The author argues that we have a responsibility of providing enough offline time to children.

How often have you seen a teenager staring outside a window and doing nothing but be silent? In all likelihood parents might think that there is something wrong with their kid—he had a fight over something with a sibling, something in the class upset him/her, someone has taunted their kid etc. If the kid is typing something on his mobile or talking over the phone texting, playing a video game, the standard reaction of a parent is – Kids these days—and leave it at that. Instead of actively creating an atmosphere where downtime becomes a recurring event, parents are shoving technology on to kids to escape the responsibility. How else can one justify this product (iPotty)?

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One digital critic says, “It not only reinforces unhealthy overuse of digital media, it’s aimed at toddlers. We should NOT be giving them the message that you shouldn’t even take your eyes off a screen long enough to pee.”

Many research studies have concluded that teenagers are more at ease with technologies than one another. The author argues that parents should be aware of subtle cues and create engineered absences for them to develop empathy for others via the real world interactions than avatars in the digital world.

Montaigne once wrote, “We must reserve a back shop, all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” But where will tomorrow’s children set up such a shop, when the world seems to conspire against the absentee soul?

Confession

The author mentions the Amanda Todd incident—a teenager posts a YouTube video about her online bully and commits suicide. Online bullying is a wide spread phenomena but the social technologies offer a weak solution to the problem—flag this as inappropriate / block the user. Though the crowd sourced moderation may look like a sensible solution, in practice, it is not. The moderation team for most of the social media firms cannot handle the amount of flagging requests. The author mentions about big data tools being developed that take in all the flagging request streams and then decide the appropriate action. The reduction of our personal lives to mere data does run the risk of collapsing things into a Big Brother scenario, with algorithms scouring the Internet for “unfriendly” behavior and dishing out “correction” in one form or another. Do we want algorithms to abstract, monitor and quantify us? Well, if online bullying can be reduced by digital tools, so be it, even though it smells like a digit band-aid to cure problems in digital world. The author is however concerned with “broadcast” culture that has suddenly been thrust upon us.

When we make our confessions online, we abandon the powerful workshop of the lone mind, where we puzzle through the mysteries of our own existence without reference to the demands of an often ruthless public.

Our ideas wilt when exposed to scrutiny too early—and that includes our ideas about ourselves. But we almost never remember that. I know that in my own life, and in the lives of my friends, it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up. Would the experience not be real until you had had shared it, confessed your “status”?

The idea that technology must always be a way of opening up the world to us, of making our lives richer and never poorer, is a catastrophic one. But the most insidious aspect of this trap is the way online technologies encourage confession while simultaneously alienating the confessor.

Authenticity

The author wonders about the “distance” that any new technology creates between a person and his/her “direct experience”. Maps made “information obtained by exploring a place” less useful and more time consuming, as an abstract version of the same was convenient. Mechanical clock regimented the leisurely time and eventually had more control on you than body’s own inclinations. So are MOOCS that take us away from directly experiencing a teacher’s lesson in flesh and blood. These are changes in our society and possibly irrevocable. The fact that “Selfie stick makes to the Time magazine’s list of 25 best inventions of 2014” says that there is some part of us that wants to share the moment, than actually experiencing it. Daniel Kahneman in one of his interviews talks about the riddle of experiencing self vs. remembering self.

Suppose you go on a vacation and, at the end, you get an amnesia drug. Of course, all your photographs are also destroyed. Would you take the same trip again? Or would you choose one that’s less challenging? Some people say they wouldn’t even bother to go on the vacation. In other words, they prefer to forsake the pleasure, which, of course, would remain completely unaffected by its being erased afterwards. So they are clearly not doing it for the experience; they are doing it entirely for the memory of it.

Every person I guess in today’s world is dependent on digital technologies. Does it take us away from having an authentic or more direct experience? Suppose your cell phone and your internet are taken away from you over the weekend, can you lead a relaxed / refreshing weekend? If the very thought of such a temporary 2 day absence gives you discomfort, then one must probably relook at the very idea of what it means to have an authentic experience. Can messaging a group on WhatsApp count as an authentic “being with a friend” experience? All our screen time, our digital indulgence, may well be wreaking havoc on our conception of the authentic. Paradoxically, it’s the impulse to hold more of the world in our arms that leaves us holding more of reality at arm’s length.

The author mentions about Carrington Event

On September 1, 1859, a storm on the surface of our usually benevolent sun released an enormous megaflare, a particle stream that hurtled our way at four million miles per hour. The Carrington Event (named for Richard Carrington, who saw the flare first) cast green and copper curtains of aurora borealis as far south as Cuba. By one report, the aurorae lit up so brightly in the Rocky Mountains that miners were woken from their sleep and, at one a.m., believed it was morning. The effect would be gorgeous, to be sure. But this single whip from the sun had devastating effects on the planet’s fledgling electrical systems. Some telegraph stations burst into flame.

and says such an event, according to experts, is 12% probable in the next decade and 95% probable in the next two centuries. What will happen when such an event happens?

Breaking Away

This chapter narrates author’s initial efforts to seek the absence. In a way, the phrase “seeking the absence” is itself ironical. If we don’t seek anything and be still, aren’t we in absence already? Not really if our mind is in a hyperactive state.

One can think of many things that demand a significant time investment, well may be, an uninterrupted time investment, to be precise. In my life, there are a couple of such activities – reading a book, understanding a concept in math/stat, writing a program, playing an instrument. One of the first difficulties in pursuing these tasks is, “How does one go about managing distractions, be it digital / analog distractions”? About the digital distractions- constantly checking emails/ whatsapp/twitter makes it tough to concentrate on a task that necessitates full immersion.

Why does our brain want to check emails/messages so often? What makes these tools addictive? It turns out the answer was given way back in 1937 by the psychologist, B.F Skinner who describes the behavior as “operant conditioning”. Studies show that constant, reliable rewards do not produce the most dogged behavior; rather, it’s sporadic and random rewards that keep us hooked. Animals, including humans, become obsessed with reward systems that only occasionally and randomly give up the goods. We continue the conditioned behavior for longer when the reward is taken away because surely, surely, the sugar cube is coming up next time. So, that one meaningful email once in a while keeps us hooked on “frequent email checking” activity.Does trading in the financial markets in search of alpha, an outcome of operant conditioning? The more I look at the traders who keep trading despite poor performance, the more certain I feel it is. The occasional reward makes them hooked to trading, despite having a subpar performance.

Try reading a book and catch yourself how many times you start thinking about – what else could I be doing now/ reading now?—Have we lost the ability to remain attentive to a given book or task without constantly multi-tasking. BTW research has proven beyond doubt that there is nothing called multitasking. All we do is mini-tasking. It definitely happens to me quite a number of times. When I am going through something that is really tough to understand in an ebook ( mostly these days, the books I end up reading are in ebook format as hardbound editions of the same are beyond my budget), I click on ALT+TAB –the attention killing combination on a keyboard that takes me from a situation where I have to actively focus on stuff for understanding TO a chrome/Firefox tab where I can passively consume content, where I can indulge in hyperlink hopping , wasting time and really not gaining anything. Over the years, I have figured out a few hacks that alerts me of this compulsive “ALT+TAB” behavior. I cannot say I have slayed ALT+TAB dragon for good at least I have managed to control it.

The author narrates his experience of trying to read the book, “War and Peace” , a thousand page book, amidst his hyper-connected world. He fails to get past in the initial attempts as he finds himself indulging in the automatic desires of the brain.

I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Seeking help from Peter Brugman(18 minutes), he allots himself 100 pages of “War and Peace” each day with ONLY three email check-ins in a day. He also explores the idea of using a software that might help him in controlling distractions (Dr. Sidney D’Mello , a Notre Dame professors, is creating a software that tracks real-time attention of a person and sounds off an alarm) . In the end, the thing that helps the author complete “War and Peace” is the awareness of lack of absence which makes him find period of absence when he can immerse himself. I like the way he describes this aspect,

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind.

There’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world—and that I am short on. So much of our work is an act of faith, in the end. We don’t know that the in-box is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,”

Does real thinking require retreat? The author thinks so and cites the example of John Milton who took a decade off to read, read, and read, at a time when his peers were DOING and ACCOMPLISHING stuff. Did he waste his time? Milton, after this retreat, wrote “Paradise Lost”, work, a totemic feat of concentration. Well this example could be a little too extreme for a normal person to take up. But I think we can actively seek mini retreats in a day/week/month/year. By becoming oblivious to thoughts like, “what others are doing?”, “what else should I be doing right now?”, “what could be the new notification on my mobile/desktop related to?” , I guess we will manage to steal mini-retreats in our daily lives.

Memory

The word memory evokes, at least amongst many of us, a single stationary cabinet that we file everything from whose retrieval is at best partial( for the trivia that goes on in our lives). This popular notion has been totally invalidated by many experiments in neuroscience. Brenda Milner’s study of Patient M is considered a landmark event in neuroscience as it established that our memory is not a single stationary cabinet that we file everything. Motor memory and Declarative memory reside in different parts of brain. Many subsequent experiments have established that human memory is a dynamic series of systems, with information constantly moving between. And changing.

Why does the author talk about memory in this book? The main reason is that we are relying more and more on Google, Wikipedia and digital tools for storing and looking up information. We have outsourced “transactive memory” to these services. In this context , the author mentions about timehop , a service that reminds you what you were doing a year ago after aggregating content from your online presence on Facebook, twitter, and blogs. You might think this is a cool thing where timehop keeps track of your life. However there is a subtle aspect that is going behind such services. We are tending to offload our memory to digital devices. Isn’t it good that I don’t have to remember all the trivia of life AND at the same time have it at the click of a button? Why do we need memory at all when whatever ALL we need is at a click of a button ? There is no harm in relying on these tools. The issue however, is that you cannot equate effective recall of information to “human memory”. Memorization is the act of making something “a property of yourself,” and this is in both senses: The memorized content is owned by the memorizer AND also becomes a component of that person’s makeup. If you have memorized something, the next time you try to access the memory, you have a new memory of it. Basically accessing memory changes memory. This is fundamentally different from “externalized memory”. In a world where we are increasingly finding whatever we need online, “having a good memory” or “memorization” skills might seem a useless skill. This chapter argues that it isn’t.

How to absent oneself?

This chapter is about author’s experience of staying away from digital world for one complete month—he fondly calls it “Analog August”. He dutifully records his thoughts each day. At the end of one full month of staying away, he doesn’t have an epiphany or something to that effect. Neither does he have some breakthrough in his work. When he resumes his life after the month long sabbatical, he realizes one thing—Every hour, Every day we choose and allow devices/services/technologies in to our lives. By prioritizing them and being aware of them is winning half the battle. By consciously stepping away from each of these connections on a daily basis is essential to get away from their spell.

imageTakeaway:

How does it feel to be the only people in the history to know life with and without internet ? Inevitably the internet is rewiring our brains. Internet does not merely enrich our experience, it is becoming our experience. By thinking about the various aspects that are changing, we might be able to answer two questions: 1) What will we carry forward as a straddle generation? 2) What worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind as technology dissolves in to the very atmosphere of our lives? . Michael Harris has tried answering these questions and in the process has written a very interesting book. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book amidst complete silence. I guess every straddle generation reader will relate to many aspects mentioned in book.

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I guess at least a few people do entertain the following thought at some point in their lives :

I want to work like crazy, earn enough money until I am X years old and then take all the hard earned money and retire in a peaceful place for the rest of the life.

The value of X is something that is variable in the above statement. For some it is late 50’s. For some it is late 40’s. Nowadays we see some instances where X happens to be late 30s/early 40s. Whatever X may be, the thought process behind such a statement is that, one would have accumulated enough money to lead a simple life far away from the hustle bustle of maddening city life.

Somerset Maugham’s short story titled, “The Lotus Eater”, is about Thomas Wilson, a person who works until he is 35, takes a 25 year annuity, settles down in Capri, an island in Italy. Wilson makes up his mind that with the 25 year annuity he would peacefully enjoy the life at Capri and in all probability he would die by 60, before the money from the 25 year  annuity stops coming in. What if he lives beyond 60? Wilson makes up his mind well before he settles down in Capri that if such a situation arises, he would have no qualms in ending his life as he would have already lived 25 years of happy and serene life on the Island. A perfect plan. However there was one big flaw in Wilson’s plan.

It had never occurred to him that after twenty-five years of complete happiness, in this quiet backwater, with nothing in the world to disturb his serenity, his character would gradually lose its strength. The will needs obstacles in order to exercise its power; when it is never thwarted, when no effort is needed to achieve one`s desires, because one has placed one`s desires only in the things that can be obtained by stretching out one`s hand, the will grows impotent. If you walk on a level all the time the muscles you need to climb a mountain will atrophy. These observations are trite, but there they are. When Wilson`s annuity expired he had no longer the resolution to make the end which was the price he had agreed to pay for that long period of happy tranquility.

The consequence of 25 years of bliss is that he cannot bring himself to end his life after 60. The last 6 years of his life, after his annuity runs out is a complete tragedy. The same island which gives him total bliss for 25 years shows him the ugly side of it. Strange are the ways of life!

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This is a book of letters. It contains a 20 year correspondence (1949-1969) between Helene Haff, an American freelance writer and Marks & Co., a book store on 84, Charing Cross Road at London. The author’s love for books and especially out-of-print books makes her respond to an ad placed by Marks & Co in a literary magazine. Her first letter requesting a set of books gets a prompt response from the book store and that’s how a 20 year correspondence starts.

These letters also capture the political milieu of the two countries around that time. In London, around 1950’s, the food was rationed out to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month. Helen magnanimously sends a 6 pound ham from her savings and this simple act breaks the ice between the Marks & Co. staff and Helen.

With every letter going back and forth Helen and various staff members start sharing their lives. Helen’s “request for book” letters start morphing in to a more “Here’s what I am feeling now, I need some thing to read” type of letters. Even though most of Helen’s requests are handled by Frank Doel at the book store, the entire staff is fascinated by this unusual customer. Some of them secretly write letters so that they are not restrained by the formalism of an official communication. This short book of ~100 pages captures a gamut of emotions that sweep through anyone’s life. Set in a context of faceless communication, a lot more is left to the imagination of the reader and that makes this book a classic to treasure.

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If you interview some of the brightest minds in the world and get to know about their productivity hacks (sometimes their role model’s hacks), and compile all of their ideas in to a format that is easily digestible, you get this book.

Nothing in this book is really something that one would not have come across. But  it is easy to forget hacks that make our lives productive. Sometimes reading other’s work habits can create awareness of the way we go about doing our work.

I think such awareness from time to time is essential and books such as these provide that opportunity, to pause and reflect. The book is definitely worth a one time read or may be a one time listen if you are audio book types person.

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I firmly believe that when you are trying to learn something, it is always “easy come, easy go”.  It is also applicable to other aspects like love, friendship etc. A friend who seems to come in to your life effortlessly also fades out of your life quickly. So, is the case with love, I guess. 

This book is total crap. The author gives a sermon on how to learn things in the first twenty hours. Most of what he writes is taken from books that I have already come across. Nothing is original. Amazing really..people can’t even bring originality in crap!. As though he has to justify his crap, he mentions about using his methods to learn Yoga, Touch typing, Go, Ruby programming, instrument called Ukulele and windsurfing.

Well, I can’t comment on things like windsurfing, touch typing, Go as I have no clue how easy or how difficult they are.  However I have had experience with Ruby and I play an instrument. So, I can at least relate to those activities. Reading author’s experiences about those two activities, I felt that the author has done a great disservice by presenting them as something that can learnt quickly. Trivializing such things is ridiculous. Why do I call it trivializing? Because in either of the cases, be it learning an instrument or programming, you basically skim the surface and that’s about it. Spending 20 hours on an instrument, you will probably learn the most popular song and hit a few notes here and there. That’s about it. It will help you pose as though you have learnt an instrument . Far from it, you will know from inside that you are a fraud and you fear that people will soon figure it out that all you know are a few songs and nothing else. In the process your experience with the instrument is shallow.

In the case of programming it is even worse. Knowing syntax of a language, typing a few commands and accomplishing a few tasks is something that you can’t even pose for a long time. Programming languages like Ruby have a false appeal that they are easy to learn. Yes, but sometimes such languages are like models. They have a limited shelf life or should I say ramp life. Try to put in 20 hours in C++ and you will be swimming in an ocean of concepts. Your head will start spinning and you either give up or become tenacious and spend days and days on it to learn it deeply. I notice that the author had the audacity to put “Anything Fast ” in the subtitle. One thing is for sure, his clientele, i.e. readers are going to forget him FAST.

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The book is about the conversations the author Will Schwalbe has with his mother while she underwent pancreatic cancer treatment.

Mary Anne, the author’s mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007. For a span of two years she undergoes treatment at a cancer hospital in NY that included long hours of chemotherapy sessions. The author often used to accompany her mother for all her treatments. Most of the doctors give their verdict that the cancer has spread and the various treatments can only delay her eventual death.

During one of the long waits at the hospital, a simple question, “What are you reading?” takes the mother-son duo on to a wonderful journey of books for 2 years. The books they read are not are not serious kind books. They read all kinds of books, ranging from classics, teen adventures, poetry, love stories, tragedies, dark theme books and then they discuss the characters, the endings, the situations in the novels etc. So, the book club is essentially a 2 person book club where the mother and the son discuss about the books they have read. In the process the author discovers so many aspects of her mother that he never did earlier.

The very first novel they read is “Crossing from Safety” and the discussion is around whether one of the characters in the novel would be able to handle the situation after his loved one’s death. Clearly even though the discussion was about the characters in the book, they were indirectly addressing the aspect of how family members would be able to deal with the death of their mother, who throughout her life gave direction to everyone and was the hub of the family.

“Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying” is a theme that comes up in many of their discussions. One is not supposed to merely read a book and forget about it. One must constantly question, “What should I be doing to do about the themes mentioned in the book?”. May be you can be compassionate towards people that you encounter in your life, May be you can do just do your bit in addressing the situation, develop a better perspective towards life etc.

One of the reasons, the author gives, about choosing such a title,”The end of YOUR LIFE book club”, You don’t know what book would be your last book, what conversation will be your last conversation. So, it is more “seize the moment” kind of attitude that this book conveys.

Towards the end of the book, the author says this about his mom :

She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose—electronic (even though that wasn’t for her) or printed, or audio—is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they’re how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died.

It is pretty amazing that over a span of two years(2007-2009), despite starting a company and having a hectic schedule, the author manages to read about 100 odd books.It shows how much he loved her mother. Here is the entire list that are discussed in the book. So, just in case you happen to read any book from this list, you can always look up the relevant section in the book and see what the two member mother-son book club had to say about it and what they learnt in the process.

  1. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
  2. Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
  3. W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” from Collected Poems
  4. Russell Banks, Continental Drift
  5. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated by Alison Anderson
  6. Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone
  7. Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
  8. Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives, translated by Natasha Wimmer
  9. The Book of Common Prayer
  10. Geraldine Brooks, March; People of the Book
  11. The Buddha, The Diamond Cutter Sutra, translated by Gelong Thubten Tsultrim
  12. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  13. Sindy Cheung, “I Am Sorrow”
  14. Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking
  15. Karen Connelly, The Lizard Cage
  16. Pat Conroy, The Great Santini
  17. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  18. Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame
  19. Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer; The Year of Magical Thinking
  20. T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
  21. Ian Fleming, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  22. Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
  23. Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In; Johnny Tremain
  24. E. M. Forster, Howards End
  25. Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
  26. William Golding, Lord of the Flies
  27. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum
  28. David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter
  29. Susan Halpern, The Etiquette of Illness
  30. Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
  31. Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train; The Price of Salt; The Talented Mr. Ripley
  32. Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns
  33. Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler
  34. John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
  35. Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories; Christopher and His Kind
  36. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
  37. Ben Johnson, Volpone
  38. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon
  39. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
  40. Jon Kabat- Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living; Wherever You Go, There You Are; Coming to Our Senses
  41. Mariatu Kamara, The Bite of the Mango, with Susan McClelland
  42. John F. Kennedy, Profi les in Courage
  43. Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies; The Namesake; Unaccustomed Earth
  44. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
  45. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, translated by Reg Keeland
  46. Victor LaValle, Big Machine
  47. Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand, illustrated by Robert Lawson
  48. C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
  49. Alistair MacLean, The Guns of Navarone; Where Eagles Dare; Force 10 from Navarone; Puppet on a Chain
  50. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
  51. Thomas Mann, Tonio Kröger; Death in Venice; The Magic Mountain;Mario and the Magician; Joseph and His Brothers,
  52. W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage; The Painted Veil;Collected Short Stories, including “The Verger”
  53. James McBride, The Color of Water
  54. Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
  55. Herman Melville, Billy Budd
  56. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
  57. Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
  58. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
  59. J. R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar
  60. Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
  61. Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness
  62. Nagarjuna, Seventy Verses on Emptiness, translated by Gareth Sparham
  63. Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française, translated by Sandra Smith
  64. Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children
  65. Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father
  66. John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra
  67. Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early, including “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?”
  68. Frances Osborne, The Bolter
  69. Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture, with Jeffrey Zaslow
  70. Susan Pedersen, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience
  71. Harold Pinter, The Caretaker
  72. Reynolds Price, Feasting the Heart
  73. Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons
  74. David Reuben, M.D., Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask
  75. David K. Reynolds, A Handbook for Constructive Living
  76. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Gilead; Home
  77. Tim Russert, Big Russ and Me
  78. Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are; In the Night Kitchen
  79. Peter Shaffer; Equus; Five Finger Exercise
  80. William Shakespeare, King Lear; Othello
  81. George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan
  82. Bernie Siegel, M.D., Love, Medicine and Miracles
  83. Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Miracle at Speedy Motors
  84. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
  85. Natsume Soseki, Kokoro, translated by Edwin McCellan
  86. Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
  87. Edward Steichen, The Family of Man
  88. Lydia Stone, Pink Donkey Brown, illustrated by Mary E. Dwyer
  89. Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
  90. Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar
  91. Michael Thomas, Man Gone Down
  92. Mary Tileston, Daily Strength for Daily Needs
  93. Colm Tóibín, The Story of the Night; The Blackwater Lightship;The Master; Brooklyn
  94. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings
  95. William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey
  96. John Updike, Couples; My Father’s Tears
  97. Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us
  98. Elie Wiesel, Night
  99. Tennesse Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
  100. Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception
  101. Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny; Marjorie Morningstar; The Winds of War

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