Favourite Books…

Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, first edition)

I had a very nice email from a reader of this blog:

“Could you share some of your all-time favorite books? I had to think hard about this; you might have to do the same. These are books that have moved you, ones you tell others about, ones that sadden you when you finish because you want there to be more, ones that give you joy. Maybe your readers will stop to think about this, too... Books are a great source of pleasure and really do make my life happier.”

What a wonderful question. And quite difficult to answer! When I think about my favourite books – especially novels – that I might recommend to others, the ones that appear are mainly from the last few years. Like, A Gentleman in Moscow, A Man Called Ove, To Kill a Mockingbird – these are books I absolutely didn’t want to end, which moved me enormously, and which I bought for other people.

(As for To Kill a Mockingbird, wow, I could write a post called ‘Atticus Finch changed my life’!)

But would I say they are my favourite books of all time? There have been so many! When I was in my teens, I read Kane and Abel by Jeffery Archer and thought it was the best read on planet earth, but probably wouldn’t buy it for anyone now! I thought the same about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Less than Zero when I was at university, favourites then because they were packed with themes that appealed at the time.

My first years in Spain were filled with Spain travelogues, like the wonderful South From Granada, that I thought was the best book I’d ever read and prompted me to write a version of my own, Errant in Iberia. And just before coming to Spain, I’d lie in the bath in London reading For Whom The Bell Tolls ’til the water got cold, dreaming of the pine forests of the Sierra of Madrid, that I now walk regularly at weekends – did that book help bring me here?

There are so many more favourite books, each accompanying me at the perfect time in my life – Walden, which along with Peace is Every Step started a tectonic shift in my way of seeing the world… Don Quijote (read in English) that helped my dive into the heart of Spain soon after arriving… Throwing ideas for this post into my notebook, I have Slaughterhouse-Five, Hard Times, The Shiralee, L’Etranger, Stig of the Dump, the Narnia series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (in fact, the whole series of Maya Angelou’s autobiography), and many more Spain books that were immensely important to me in my first years here: Homage to Catalonia, Monsignor Quixote, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Voices of the Old Sea… All complete happiness to me at the time (and surely now if I were to reread them).

Aren’t we lucky that ‘favourite books’ is such a shifting sand, that books come along just when we need them, that they accompany us where we are, or help us go where we need to go. Books are pure joy.

In the last few years, after finishing the perfect book, or reading everything by the perfect author, I might suddenly worry that I would never find anything as good again. But look how many authors, epochs and themes there are in the random and surely incomplete list of favourite books above – From Dickens to Vonnegut, from Spain to America’s deep south, Victorian England to Pre-Civil War Spain, via Sweden, Australia and Moscow. And Google tells me there are 140 million more books in the world, so I think I’ll be OK – how many more authors, places, epochs and themes are waiting within!

Thank you so much for the question S., it’s reminded me how incredibly important books have been and continue to be in my life. So many ideas and new ways of life revealed, so many places travelled, so many lives lived, so many helping hands guiding me along the way. And so many more favourites waiting to be read!

Don Q. study, copied gratefully from Pablo P.


My little daughter occasionally takes my phone when no one is looking and manages to activate the camera. Then I find lots of photos like this:


I thought this next one was actually very good, no idea what it is:

Chair and wall?

When she went to bed I put it into Photoshop, spun it 90º, fiddled with the colours, and found a nice landscape. A fine bit of collaboration!

Mountains and snow and grass.

Change 4: The Body and the Bird Feeder

A few days ago I had a nice conversation with one of my sisters about the bird feeders in her garden, how her family love watching all the local bird life gathering there to eat.

‘I want to buy some bird feeders!’ I thought, so I jumped onto Amazon and entered ‘bird feeder’. Hundreds of great options appeared, and I began opening the ones with the best reviews in separate browser tabs – soon I had 15 tabs open for 15 bird feeders, and began to read the reviews for each.

10 bird feeder-pages later I was confused, stressed, annoyed, and felt my blood pressure surging. This happens pretty much every time I start researching and review-reading online for objects to buy – whether I need them or not. A flood of browser tabs and reviews, a flood of stress hormones. Sometimes I feel an overall discomfort for hours afterwards.

The same thing happens when I work far too long on the computer without proper breaks. Or the rare times I get lost for a while on social media.

So change number 4, to add to the rest, is: Less Tech. Stress!

My body is an amazing barometer of what is and what isn’t good for me – perhaps far more insightful than my mind. Some activities make it feel good, some not so good.

It seems my body knows what I really value in life – peace, creativity, walks, reading, learning, exploring, time with friends and family, and when I’m doing something that really doesn’t match these valuable ways of spending time, it lets me know before my mind does. I aim to listen to it more closely, do more of those valuable things that feel good, and less of what my body tells me it doesn’t like at all, especially online.

Last night I sat down next to my daughter and drew a bird feeder instead. That felt great.

Change 3: Effortlessness

Trees and cloud…

The first two changes I’m making are tangible, you can hold them in your hands and see them with your eyes: drawing, and reading books. This third change is abstract, but just as real. Change 3 is Effortlessness. To live with Effortlessness.

What does that even mean?!

I have been going to the physiotherapist every month or so to get some muscle in my back manipulated back into place. If I were more mindful of my posture in chairs, and slumped less on sofa’s, I would apparently save myself a fortune. After she has sorted that out, she squeezes the knots of tension out of my shoulders and neck. Every time I go back, there they are again. It sort of annoys me. ‘Is it stress?’ I ask her… ‘Yup!’ She replies. ‘Grrrrrrrrr…’ I growl to myself, ‘I want to live without stress!’

I left the last session promising myself, and her, to take a look at my life from a metaphorical 50,000 feet, to see why these knots of stress keep coming back. What am I doing wrong? The answer was clear: Effort.

Effort as in: toil, stress, strain. Effort isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has plenty of worthy synonyms too: application, aspiration, industry… But I often do things the first way, stressing, toiling and straining. I toil my way across town on a walk instead of taking a relaxing ramble. I stress my way through an evening’s parenting instead of smiling at all the chaos unfolding around me. I strain my way through a new piece I’m learning on the piano, and give myself wrist strain. It’s exhausting!

I really want to live like the Bobby McFerrin song, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, or Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ (Rise up this mornin, Smiled with the risin sun…) I need to chill out!

I want to master the art of letting go, letting go of stresses, of worries and anxieties, of frustrations and expectations. Letting go of the troubles of the world. Letting go of all the mad, mad running around.

Effortlessness, I believe, means living as the real me. Deep inside, this real me is very peaceful and quiet and clear. He doesn’t need to get swept away by the furious pace of our world, doesn’t need to run around, overdo it, strain and strive. The real me knows exactly what effortlessness means and knows exactly how to do it: with ease, pause, peace. All I have to do is listen, and practice.

I went looking for help from my books, and rediscovered this from Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s exactly what I have in mind:

“Have you ever met someone who seems to be skilled in the art of letting go? [They] can remind us and help us let go of worry, craving, and concern, so we can be free to encounter the wonders of life that are in the here and the now. If we see someone living in this world who is not disturbed by the ebb and flow of life, not enmeshed in afflictions, that person has freedom, that person is solid. To see such a person is the highest blessing. When we master this quality, all of our worldly afflictions dissolve and we become indestructible, completely at peace. We can become that person by practicing happiness in the present moment.” – From Two Treasures

I read it to my wife Marina. ‘Do you know anyone like that?’ she asked? ‘Just the man who wrote it…’ I said. But I know that we all have the ability to live like that. And I’m working on it.

Rise up this mornin, Smiled with the risin sun…

And the setting sun….

Change 2: Read!

We are practically Neanderthals. We don’t have a tele, we’ve never owned an iPad or tablet, and we only occasionally subscribe to a month here and there of Netflix, which we watch on the laptop.

But the last few months have seen a definite swerve from these Thoreauvean tendencies. It started when we rented a summer house in the Pyrenees with an ancient TV in it. At lunchtime, my son would flick around the good-old Spanish terrestrial TV stations, and usually end up watching an episode or two of Big Bang Theory. I’d be at the other end of the room trying to get some work done, but slowly but surely I gravitated to the sofa to watch Sheldon and friends, badly dubbed into Spanish, doing their Big Bang things.

A few episodes later I was hooked. As soon as we got home to Madrid, I resubscribed to Netflix, and began watching Big Bang Theory from Season 1, Episode 1 (in English!) A couple of months later I’d seen all 279 episodes. At 20 minutes each that’s 93 hours of TV. Ouch. Well, I don’t regret a minute of it. I laughed and laughed, it was totally therapeutic.

When I got to the end I felt a definite void, which after a brief search, I filled with Mad Men. Pure escapism into 60’s New York. It got me through the social vigours of a full-on Spanish Christmas. Of the 7 seasons, each with 13, 45-minute episodes, I watched 6 seasons, that’s 58.5 hours more TV in less than a month.

Getting Through Christmas

Around the time we took down the Christmas decorations, I decided enough TV, or in this case laptop, was enough. I wanted books back in my life.

I rounded up all my favourite books and stacked them on my bedside table. Like a sea wall, a great literary defensive fortification against my serious Netflix habit. I dipped into them here, and dipped into them there, desperate to lose myself again in the joys of a book that you just can’t put down, until, suddenly, a few days later I bought the book-answer to all my problems, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs:

… and I couldn’t put it down.

The book, a delightful, encouraging, intelligent essay, love letter and compendium of reading wisdom, is dedicated to those who know ‘what reading can give – pleasure, wisdom, joy – even if that glimpse came long ago…’ It follows the premise, made obvious in the title, that it’s increasingly hard to read, and to maintain the long periods of dedicated attention a good book requires, in this crazy age of short and often idiotic messages bombarding us from everywhere.

Even the author, a lifelong reader and English Literature professor, was having a hard time sticking with his beloved books.

Now I’m not a totally lost cause. I read a lot of books last year, but since the series-binging stared around late August, I’ve hardly read a thing. Certainly I haven’t found myself joyfully rapt in an unputdownable novel (mainly because I haven’t picked any up!) And I was beginning to worry it would never happen again. Then just as I decided I wanted to do something about it, along came this great book telling me, it’s OK, it’s happening to me too, and don’t worry, says Alan Jacobs, here’s what we are going to do to get back into books:

First and foremost, Read at Whim – don’t read like you are taking vitamins, like you are doing something that’s really good for you, like eating Broccoli, forget the guilty feeling you should only read the classics, read whatever you like!

Don’t read to tick the great books off the latest great-books list. Don’t read to see how many books you can read in a year. Read what makes you happy! Read slowly. There’s no hurry! Who cares how many books you read in a year, this isn’t some competition! As long as you are happy, just read!

I have read quite a few of the classics, either because I wanted to or was obliged to, but remember some of the best reads of my life have been born from just such moments of Whim. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code picked up years ago (guiltily – no one was looking and I was travelling alone!) at Madrid airport and devoured on an Easy Jet flight to London. A great new novel called The Nix bought about a year back on a Whim in our local bookstore. A whimsical decision last spring to buy and reread To Kill a Mockingbird – What a book! Obliged to read it at school, rapt and delighted to reread it now.

So here is the change I am making, change 2. Read. Read books! Lose myself in books! Read at Whim – whatever I like! Good books, bad books, great books, new books, old books, wise books, instructive books… and yes, some classic books. It’s all good. Read not to eat my literary vitamins (though I’ll probably get lots anyway), but for pure, pure pleasure, the way we read as kids.

To celebrate the end of Alan Jacob’s book, I popped down to the local bookshop with a headful of Whim and picked up a page-turner, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

So bye for now. The sofa beckons… Thanks for reading!

Books read, unread, bought, borrowed and received.

Change 1: Draw

There are a series of nice changes I am making in my life. I’d like to write about them, and see how they stick. The first, is to draw more again.

My grandmother was an artist, and my mother worked for a while in a shop selling antiquarian books and art, which meant that we ended up in a house with very beautiful drawings on the walls. Drawings by artist friends of my grandmother, and old drawings collected by my mother. Drawings of people, landscapes, and amongst my favourites, the occasional cat. Simple pencil drawings, and fine ink drawings. All my life I just wanted to be able to draw like that, simple drawings of nice people, places and cats.

My sisters were also very good at drawing, so drawing was ever-present at the kitchen table. My sister Ellie is now an illustrator:

‘Mushroomy lady pelting it through the evening woods’, Ellie Curtis

… and my sister Rebekah is an illustrator, artist and writer:

’50 Trees’, Rebekah Curtis

While they drew and drew, I got madly into photography, and that became my art, ‘Ben’s thing’.

A year or two after our first child was born, I got back into drawing. “Got back”, because like most people it was something I did as a child naturally, did at school because we had art classes, then stopped doing pretty much around the age of 16 (apart from doodling in margins, or while on the phone, which I’ve never been able to stop myself doing – the repressed child squeezed into the margins!)

This ‘getting back into drawing‘ was wonderful, with a few fatal caveats (obsessive self-judgement, terrible timing – I’ll get to those in a minute). To start, I found a well-known book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and was amazed by my before-and-after-the-book self-portraits:

Ben, before and after…

My illustrator sister Ellie said she preferred the ‘before’ version, and in retrospect I think she was right! It’s free and natural. (So I’m not sure I’d recommend that book – perhaps it’s better to draw as you just draw, like the ‘before’ version above, then look at and copy amazing artists, and just keep going).

Then I discovered the joys of the Urban Sketching movement, and drawing whatever was in front of me wherever I was, and produced some things I really liked, often adding watercolour :

View to our roof terrace in Madrid

As is my way, I kept a blog about my drawing experiences, and even started a sketching group in Madrid. A few of us, total strangers, would meet, wander, and sketch.

Drawing became very important to me for about two years. It was creative, meditative and pleasing. Then slowly but surely it began to fade. Why?

Firstly, it was muddled up with my age-old need for recognition, mixed with my skill for incredibly inappropriate timing. I’d often draw at times when I should have been helping, helping to get our toddler out of the house, to make lunch, pack a suitcase… I’d thrust my finished drawing under the nose of my tired, overworked, by now p’d-off-at-drawing wife, and say, ‘What do you think? Is it any good?’ Then I’d find out where I could stick my drawings … but never if they were works of art or not.

My obsessive nature, (now mellowing!), which had me doing new things at all the wrong hours of the day, and my desire to do things incredibly well, just didn’t fit in with the needs of our new husband-wife-child life. We had no help and little clue how to be parents – bad time for Ben to dive headlong into a new hobby.

And then there was the judging mind. ‘Is it any good? Am I getting any better? It’s terrible! I’m rubbish! Ooooh, this one is really good… or is it? etc etc etc’ – the exhausting inner-dialogue! Anything that makes my mind do that needs to be paused purely on mental health grounds!

So the drawing slowly disappeared, and I went back to doodling in margins and being slightly envious of people that draw, seemingly effortlessly, and usually beautifully, just because they can’t help themselves.

So this is Change number 1!

I would like to draw more again. I’ve started already and it’s giving me joy. I’d like to draw with no judgement – who cares if it’s any good! Some will be, some won’t be. I’d like to draw with zero need for recognition (might be asking a lot…) I’d like to draw so my kids see me drawing and understand that drawing is a wonderful thing. No, hang on, I’d like to draw because it is a wonderful thing, and I learned that in the last few months by watching my 3 year-old daughter draw! (To get unstuck borrow a kid!)

Yes, I’d like to draw for fun! That’s it, for fun! For pleasure, for joy, for delight, to lose myself for a while.

Here’s the tree I drew in the library this weekend, while my daughter was drawing with other kids at a nearby table:

Tree from imagination

Here’s a motorbike I sketched while we sat in the parked car listening to the end of a podcast:

Bike sketch!

Here’s what the table looks like when I draw with my daughter.

How tables should be

So that’s it. I’ve worked it out:

Change 1 is: I want to draw for fun and pleasure. Nothing else. Not to be good. Not to be told I’m good. Not because I want to show my kids anything – they’re the ones showing me! I want to draw because like them I found it fun as a child and I want to regain and reclaim that childlike fun, do things I can lose myself in, in any way I can. I want to draw like my daughter. For hours, without a care in the world.

And finally…

  • I am very grateful to Austin Kleon. I like his books, especially the latest, Keep Going, and his blog is one of the few I read with regular devotion. He’s creative, writes intelligently, isn’t ashamed of sharing the doodles and sketches in his notebooks, and has fun.
  • This is a very good TEDx talk, refreshingly unplanned and disorganised, by a great artist who asks, why on earth to do we draw when we are kids, then stop until we are old and retired – what happens in between? I’m in between, and take up his challenge.

The Joy of Rain

Reasons why rain is wonderful…

1. Song

It’s rainingit’s pouring,
The old man is snoring,
He went to bed and bumped his head,
And couldn’t get up in the morning.

I love singing that to my kids whenever it rains. It takes me back to being a child, and I suppose singing always makes little children happy. Adults too.

2. Sound

There is pretty much nothing as meditative as being still and listening to rain falling, on the ground, on the roof, on your umbrella. I woke up at 6.30 this morning and had half an hour of wonderful listening to rain – endless thoughts – listening to rain – endless thoughts – before getting up.

3. Weathering with You

My son is into manga and anime. We went to the cinema to see the anime film Weathering with You. I thought I might be a bit unsure about anime films, but it was incredible. The quality of the drawing and animation was breathtaking, and the central motif was rain. It rained and rained and rained and rained, and the rain was drawn so beautifully it was mesmerising.

4. A doorway to inner peace about everything

One summer’s day quite a few years ago we were sitting in the meditation hall is Plum Village, a buddhist monastery in France we used to visit for family retreats. That day the wonderful Dordogne sunshine had been replaced by pouring rain. We were listening to a talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which he began by softly saying:

Breathing in I know it is raining
Breathing out I smile to the rain

I’ll never forget that. It has made me smile at rain ever since. First there is awareness and acceptance of the fact that it is raining. Secondly we smile at it as there’s nothing to be done about it, and it’s beautiful.

5. Low hanging fruit

In Living from a Place of Surrender Michael Singer calls rain, and all other weather we might not like, low-hanging fruit on the path to being happy with whatever comes along in life.

Imagine it’s raining and we don’t want it to, our mind starts up its endless chat, “I hate rain, it’s ruining my plans, it’s been going on for days…etc!” But it’s just rain. The rain is just doing its thing – raining. We can’t control it or do anything about it. If we say, “It’s raining, I can accept that, not much else to do, I can make other plans, or enjoy it,” we are relaxing and releasing all our bad thoughts and mental chatter about rain. You can’t control the weather, might as well let go of our ideas about whether it’s good or bad!

So you start with the weather (rain, heat, cold, wind), this easy, low hanging fruit we can work with every day, and then one day your boss/partner/a traffic cop is having a go at you – and you realise you can’t control that either! And you relax and release all your reactions because you’ve got really good by practicing with the weather – and in the end you realise that everything is low-hanging fruit! You start letting go of annoyed and difficult thoughts about everything! All thanks to the rain or the wind or the heat or the cold!

I’ve been experimenting with this for a few weeks, it really works.

6. Umbrellas

I love my big black umbrella with it’s fake wood handle. It makes me think of people in suits in London. No idea why I like that. I love the sound the rain makes on it. I like the fact it means I still get a walk even though it’s raining. It rescued my cherished half-hour walk to the library where I’m sitting this morning. And the walk through pouring rain got me thinking about rain, which got me writing all this, so I’m immensely grateful to my umbrella. Oh, and umbrellas make wonderful subjects for photographs and drawings…

They were right all along…

Julia, Madrid’s Plaza de Colon

I used to look at Zen Masters and other renowned wise people and think, they must look at us people of the world, running around like crazy all day long, filling ourselves up with food and stuff and every kind of wild entertainment, always searching for the next thing to make us happy… and they must smile to themselves compassionately, thinking, ‘they’ll work it out some day…’

They know that life is much easier, and much more peaceful, when running and neediness and greed and all the mad consuming are put aside, leaving quiet and space instead. Lots of space for enjoying each day, for what life gives us anyway by the mere miraculous fact of being alive and part of it.

I’ve read endless books by the famously wise, and sometimes I’ve been able to live fairly close to their ideas. But I’d usually think, that’s too extreme, I don’t want to give up all these worldly things, and I’d go back to being “normal” again, with all the running and crazy habits of our fast-moving world. Manic, stuffed days. Manic, stuffed mind. Running all over the place. It never brings me much peace.

This has been a very quiet month. A necessarily quiet month after the excesses of a Spanish Christmas. A month of very healthy eating, mostly at home. A month with books instead of binge-watching series on TV. A month focusing on nature, mostly paying attention to trees and birds, a month of quietly creating things again – drawings with my daughter, Spanish podcasts with my wife, writing here – and spending lots of quiet time at home with the family.

And suddenly the realisation dawned on me last night with great force… They were right all along!

The Zen Masters and incredibly wise people from all eons past really are right. There is a wiser, more peaceful way to live – with less, with much more space, without all the running around, just being awake in the present moment, and it makes you feel much better. How important it is to keep these wise people close! To keep their books at hand, to keep listening to what they’ve been telling us all along. There’s no need to run. No need to chase after things and have endless projects. Be awake. Look after yourself and those that are close to you. Enjoy simplicity. Enjoy life. All’s well.

Feeling Wonderful About The World

Early morning woods, Casa de Campo, Madrid

There are 500 ways to get depressed about the world today, and 500,000 ways to feel wonderful about it.

Let’s start with the problem. Depending on who you talk to or what YouTube video you watch, the number of existential threats available to us to latch on to seems to be greater than ever. If you spend 5 minutes with trending Twitter hashtags there’s a good chance you’ll go for a walk afterwards thinking, ‘well, better enjoy today’s stroll, it might be the last’. I actually found myself thinking that the other day after seeing a particularly worrisome set of ‘trending hashtags’ in Twitter’s number 1, 2, 3, and 4 slots at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning.

Which reminded me why I very, very rarely go near Twitter.

And that was two weeks ago – guess what, we’re still here!

Gloom and negativity and despair are pervasive and persuasive. I saw a few seconds of a short video on Instagram by a bright, usually positively-positive person brandishing what was, he said, ‘already, for me, the book of the year’ (it was about January 7th) – the book was called something like ‘The End of Nature’. A comment beneath read, ‘is this another one of those books about how we are all doomed?’, and I thought, ha, the commenter feels like me! Fed up with all this non-stop doom!

Let’s be clear. The world has major problems. At the same time, there are already enough people completely anxious and depressed by them, and adding to this number will not do any good. It doesn’t do me any good when I get anxious about one of many existential threats, it doesn’t do my family any good, or the people I hang out with. And I’m sure it doesn’t do the world any good.

So what do I want to do?

1. Put brightness into the world, marvel at and share the wonder and happiness and beauty that is still absolutely present in and all around us. The world is still incredible. In 500,000 ways! Trees, skies, birds, friends, happy kids, walks, butterflies, art, music, books, love, wonder, imagination, good food, good films, companionship, cats, dogs, leaves, central heating, shoes, clothes, beaches, forests…. and on and on the wonders go!

2. Recognise the common-sense-obvious things that are causing a lot of the world’s problems, like greed, rampant consumerism – of goods, resources, digital attention – and go quietly in the opposite direction – don’t do them so much!

3. Be careful not to fall into despair and anxiety. Repeated anxiety and despair are useless. They serve nobody, least of all ourselves or those around us. Whenever I come across something that triggers one of these emotions in me, I practice relaxing and releasing. As soon as I can I recognise the object of anxiety, let it go, and return my attention to the wonders of life again. It’s hard, it takes practice, but it works.

4. Remember, it might (most probably) never happen. Imagine many of today’s seemingly impossible problems are eventually solved – what a waste of time it would have been to suffer so much anxiety about them now! Every age has had terrifying existential problems to deal with. Imagine living in the 15th Century, or the 5th! Famine, war, violence, disease, cold – as Oliver Burkeman writes in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

“Try searching Google’s library of digitised manuscripts for the phrase ‘these uncertain times’, and you’ll find that it occurs over and over, in hundreds of journals and books, in virtually every decade the database encompasses, reaching back to the seventeenth century. ‘As a matter of fact,’ [Alan] Watts insisted, ‘our age is no more insecure than any other. Poverty, disease, war, change and death are nothing new.'”

5. Take note of the great, good, intelligent, powerful people out there who are designing, promoting and affecting great, positive change in the world, or putting great beauty into it. While the doom-crowd can be the noisiest, at the same time there are plenty of incredible minds working away on unimaginable solutions to the world’s real problems, and plenty or artists enhancing our lives. There always have been. That’s partly why we are all still here.

6. Make a firm decision not to join the doom and gloom camp. This camp is very well populated already. They’ve got it covered! They really have.

Deicide instead to make people’s lives better when they come into contact with you. To improve days.

7. Stick with the 500,000 things that make this world and our lives incredible, the blue sky, trees, laughter, beauty, a smile… Notice them, read them, listen to them, thank them, write about them, show them to others, save lots of time for them. They are everywhere you look, inside and out, at this very moment, right now.

The Silence and Joy of Books

Bench, oak woods, El Escorial
Bench in the Oak Woods, El Escorial

I found myself in a state of total digital overwhelm by the end of Friday night. Working on this blog, swapping back and forth between two Instagram accounts (why, oh why!?), admin tasks for Notes in Spanish, reading endless fascinating links from two newsletters I subscribe, unsubscribe and resubscribe to. My brain was fried.

I ran to our home office, where we rarely work as it’s cold and damp in winter, picked up an armful of books, retreated to the sofa in our living room, and dived in, a snippet here, a paragraph there, and soon felt much, much saner. I mostly found myself engrossed in Echoing Silence, a compilation of writing about the act of writing – letters, articles, autobiography – all written by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

I hold Merton in high esteem. He saw the madness of modern life and went decidedly in the opposite direction, towards the inner life, silence, reading, contemplation, shutting himself up in a Trappist monastery where his superiors, often to his chagrin (he’d wanted to give it up), put him constantly to work as a writer.

Anyway, in this book, there is an interview with a magazine where he’s asked who he is reading, what his most influential books have been and so on. As I love this kind of list, I’m going to copy the interview questions here, but with my own answers, except for one, where I’ll post his answer, because I think it’s great and pretty much mine too.

1. Name the last three books you have read:

The Surrender Experiment – Michael A. Singer (Audiobook) – An interesting autobiography, what happens when you say yes to everything life asks of you, whether your head says you like the idea or not.

Living from a Place of Surrender: The Untethered Soul in Action – Michael A. Singer (Audiobook) – I liked this quite a lot. It takes a little perseverance, but the ideas and techniques it reveals really can make life much, much easier and more enjoyable, and unravel and dissolve troubles from the past that persist in the present.

My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure – Alastair Humphrey – A fun wander through Spain in the footsteps of Laurie Lee.

2. Name the books you are reading now:

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober: Discovering a Happy, Healthy, Wealthy Alcohol-Free Life (Audiobook) – I’ve had enough of wine, even the small amount I have been drinking in the last few years makes me feel terrible every time. This book is an excellent ally in the decision to give up.

The Art of Noticing – Walker Rob – This book is a joy. Wakes you up to the world around you in all its exquisite detail. The kind of book I’d love to write!

Echoing Silence – Thomas Merton – As mentioned above. He’s a wonderful ally in the confusion, joy, difficulty, and necessity or writing. He rages against it at times but knows it’s infused by magic and very hard to stop.

3. Books you intent to read:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction – Alan Jacobs – Apparently a book about the joy of reading, and the importance of reading on a whim, for fun, whatever you like, the way we used to read as children, as well as the importance of more ‘serious’ reading of the old and great.

4. Books that have influenced you:

Peace is Every Step – Thich Nhat Hanh – Was a salve to my soul and sent me on many an interesting journey!

Walden – Henry David Thoreau – Simplify, simplify simplify!

The Seven Storey Mountain – Thomas Merton – hooked me for a whole summer holiday, I love autobiography with a spiritual bent…

Gandhi, An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments With Truth – M.K Gandhi – hooked me for a whole Christmas holiday, hardly moved from the fireside. My wife said it was a dream Christmas, having me so still!

One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan – rarely leaves my bedside table.

Awareness – Anthony de Mello. A recent find. I love someone who tells it how it is. Wake up, he says, most of this world’s endeavours, your thoughts, and all our ideas of success are insane. Wake up! Wake up!

Zen Battles: Modern Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji – Thich Nhat Hanh – Complex and inscrutably Zen in parts, I’ve never read it all the way through, but the commentary, which I dip into at random, contains a few sentences that can change your life. I like the original title: Nothing to do, Nowhere to go. Medicine for the soul.

The 4-Hour Workweek – Timothy Ferriss – Funny how this fits in with the other books on this list, but this book gave me tools, and far more importantly, permission, to lead a different kind of stripped-back, free, minimalist working life that I had no idea was either feasible, or, from my education’s point of view, allowable.

5. Why have these books been an influence on you?

This is Merton’s answer, I’ll borrow it for myself, it pretty much sums things up:

“These books and others like them have helped me to discover the real meaning of my life, and have made it possible for me to get out of the confusion and meaninglessness of an existence completely immersed in the needs and passivities fostered by a culture in which sales are everything.”

6. Name a book everyone should read:

It’s A Magical World (Calvin and Hobbes Collection) – Bill Watterson

7. Why this book?

Really, I don’t have a clue what everyone should read. This one is fun, a classic cartoon strip that makes me smile and laugh and remember the best bits of childhood. What is your version of that?

So books saved me from digitally-induced anxiety on Friday night, and I intend to fill my life with them again (they were loosing out for a while to TV series…) You never know when one will crop up that immerses you so deeply and wonderfully that you can’t put it down for a week, and you come out a different person on the other side. And I’ve noticed how much reading books helps me and inspires me to write, which, in my case, is an enjoyable, healthy thing to do.