Top Four Books of the Year — 2016

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future." ~ Eric Hoffer, philosopher


by Matt Hart

The CEO's of fortune 500 companies read on average a book a week. Tony Robbins writes about his attempt to read a book a day, and how in failing to do so still managed to get through more than 700 books in seven years. Warren Buffett says he spends 80 percent of his day reading.

I've never heard of a good writer who isn't obsessively consuming words... and therefore thinking, empathizing, and considering new concepts constantly. It's quite literally the fodder for your mind to use when conceiving new ideas.

For 2016 I set a goal of reading at least a book a week. For an admitted slow reader this was a Herculean feat. I was forced to adopt a number of new tactics to make this happen, from listening to audiobooks while I was running or skiing, to being sure that I got at least 12 pages read each morning before I opened my computer or left for a run. I am probably incapable of reading fast enough to get through 365 books in a year, but Robbins's 100 books in a single trip around the sun could be my next aspirational goal.

I did, however, get through 61 books, some long, some short, some terrible, and some wonderful.

Here are the four best books I read last year:
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I can't explain how much this book moved me and motivated me to create, so I'll just quote directly from the source. Elizabeth Gilbert has done something special here.

"If I want creativity in my life I will have to make space for fear too."

"If anything I think that my genius spent a lot of time waiting around for me. Waiting to see if I'm truly serious about this line of work."

"I sent more and more work out and was rejected, rejected, rejected. I disliked the rejection letters, who wouldn’t, but I took the long view. My intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing, period."

"So, yeah—here’s a trick: Stop complaining. There are so many good reasons to stop complaining if you want to live a more creative life. First of all, it's annoying. Every Artist complains, so its a dead and boring topic. Second, of course it's difficult to create things; if it wasn't difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn't be special or interesting. Third, nobody ever really listens to anybody else's complaints, anyhow, because we're all too focused on our own holy struggle, so basically you're just talking to a brick wall. Forth, and most important, you're scaring away inspiration. Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended."

"Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not old-timey freaky voodoo style big magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer that's how it gets done."
I love this.
Why We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich

Some storks and vultures cool themselves by shitting down their legs when it's hot out. "The blood in the bird’s legs is cooled by the evaporation, which reduces overall body temperature by as much as 2 degrees celsius."

In this seminal work by Bernd Heinrich, he weaves a tale of human and animal endurance running that is broad enough to fascinate even the non-athletes. His deep knowledge of biology and the natural world allows him to compare us, as Homo sapiens sapiens, to other species in a way that elucidates how we are able to run farther than any other mammal.

"We are, deep down, still runners, whether or not we declare it by our actions.” Bernd Heinrich
The original title goes a long way to properly describing the book, "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Ourselves.” Driven by a basic curiosity to explain the world and the long-distance runners in it, this one is on par with Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir," with more science intermixed. Okay, admittedly it doesn't hurt that Heinrich was an ultrarunner and I am personally obsessed with learning about evolution, but I think this is a true classic either way, and something to aspire to.


The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have." — Albert Einstein (1879-1955). This quote represents the exact point Carl Sagan so elegantly drives home in his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World.

Science is our best tool of discovery. It allows us to shine a light on the dark corners of the unknown. Where religions claims knowledge based on a book that a man wrote of some God's revealed truths, science, instead takes a hypothesis based on observation. Even more important, the scientific method compels the brightest minds in the field to then go about trying to disprove each other's ideas. This helps flush out what might be wrong and allows the process to eventually get us closer to the truth.

"63% of American adults are unaware that the last dinosaur died before humans arose."
Throughout, Sagan skillfully dismantles such non-sense as alien abductions, faith healing, mysticism, alternative medicine, and other such pitfalls of magical thinking. In a strikingly prescient section Sagan even warns us to watch out for the timeless and Trumpian political tactic of scapegoating "the other." The most important chapter however might be where Sagan lays his groundwork for the "Bullshit Detection Kit"—a set of itellectual tools that, especially now, we need more than ever.


Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

The Financial Times called Sapiens, "a riveting, myth-busting book," that "cannot be summarized," so I won't try to do that here. Harari's ambitious tomb walks us through the history of mankind after all.

One of the ideas I hadn't conceptualized yet, and that lingered in my brain after reading it was this: "The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago the world was home, at one in the same time, to several human species." Imagine being out gathering in the forest and running into another species of our homo genus. A creature that looks like you, but is actually as different as a wolf is to a dog. Shockingly similar anatomically, but with varying levels of intelligence. So, we shared the earth with other Homos before we became the only one to not go extinct. Mind. Blown.

Although I can't agree with everything Harari puts forward in this book, if any of this piques your interest, this one is worth spending time with. A book at its best should challenge our basic narrative of the world, and Sapiens does that more than any other book I read this year.


Some other titles to explore that very nearly landed on this list:

Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel: A history of The New Yorker's humble beginnings and it's peculiar founder. Did you know the magazine was more focused on humor before Hiroshima?

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams: We evolved outside, amongst it. So, is spending most of our lives inside with our screens damaging to human health? Williams looks at what the science says.

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar: A wonderful magazine style narrative about the fastest runners on earth. Add to this the fact that one of them was either pushed or jumped off a balcony to his death and you have quite the dramatic story.

How Gritty Are You?

"Writing is failure, over and over and over again." ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates


by Matt Hart

Why is talent not enough? How does someone who wasn't born with preternatural abilities become successful? These are the key questions 2013 MacArthur "genius" and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, seeks to answer in her 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth, who has a BA in neurobiology from Harvard, a MSc in neuroscience from Oxford, and a PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania argues that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called “grit," which she describes as a passion and perseverance for very long term goals.

Through her own first person experiences growing up with a father who was obsessed with success, Duckworth articulates her argument well. She interviewed The Atlantic Monthly's Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has, in the last few years, reached a level of fame unknown to almost all writers, but who still had some shocking and humble things to say about his work.
"The challenge of writing is to see your horribleness on page. To see your terribleness and then to go to bed. And wake up the next day and take that horribleness and terribleness and refine it, and make it not so terrible and not so horrible, and then to go to bed again. And come the next day and refine it a little bit more and make it not so bad. And then go to bed the next day and do it again and make it maybe average. And then one more time if you're lucky, maybe you get to good. And if you've done that, that's a success." ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta Nehisi Coates

If you can reset your relationship with failure, you can overcome its stultifying effects. Duckworth illustrates this in the story of cartoon editor for the New Yorker magazine, Bob Mankoff. Here he explains the magazine's insane cartoon rejection rate.
"At this magazine, contract cartoonists, who have dramatically better odds of getting published than anyone else, collectively submit about five hundred cartoons every week. In a given issue, there is only room, on average, for about seventeen of them."
That's a rejection rate of more than 96 percent. Before ascending to the cartoon editors position, Mankoff himself had about 2,000 cartoons rejected between 1974 and 1977. The year he finally had one accepted, he managed to sell the magazine 13 cartoons, then 25 the following year, and 27 the year after that. By 1981 the New Yorker asked him if he'd consider becoming a contract cartoonist which then lead to him becoming the editor.
To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.
Really talented people don't always stick with things. In the long run the people for whom things don't come easy, in many cases, end up prevailing. Pair this book with Carol Dweck's equally effective treatise in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and begin to change the way you think about failure.

George Orwell's Four Great Motives for Writing

"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery."


by Matt Hart

Many of us were forced to read the English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) when we were in college. Blair was, of course, George Orwell's surname. For me, his two books, Animal Farm and 1984, were somewhat of a revelation in what could be accomplished through fiction, and they left a considerable mark on my consciousness. In his book, A Collection of Essays, Orwell covers much ground, but it's his essay titled "Why I Write" that is most compelling to me.
"From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."
He goes on to describe the four major things that he believes motivate writers:
"Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motivations for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which she is living. They are

- Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snub you in childhood, etc., etc. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessman — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

- Esthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words in the right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

- Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

- Political purpose. Using the word "political "in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society that they should strive after."

In 1936 Orwell volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, an experience that he wrote about in another great first person essay, his book Homage to Catalonia. Without getting into specifics in A Collection of Essays, Orwell writes that this is the moment when he began to align his writing in opposition to totalitarianism.
"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it."
A Collection of Essays gives a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the world's great writers and is a master class in essay writing. Complement it with Christopher Hitchen's 2012 book Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, and you will have, at your fingertips, two of the greatest minds of all time.

Attributive Verbs & Adorning "Said"

"Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying."


By Matt Hart

The other day I ran across a few sources instructing on the proper way to attribute a quote and what not to do with "said." I found them helpful, so for my fellow writers out there, I pulled them together for you below. The first was from a book about Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker magazine, called Genius in Disguise. In the back pages the author, Thomas Kunkel, included a few helpful appendices, including "The New Yorker Prospectus" and a "Ross Query Sheet." The most helpful for me, however, was the "Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker articles," which I've excerpted below here:

This was written by Wolcott Gibbs around 1937, apparently at the request of Katharine White, who was then trying out a succession of new fiction editors. Though it has passed into New Yorker legend, "Theory and Practice" was a working document and fairly reflected the magazine's guidelines and tastes of the time.

The word "said" is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting "grunted," "snorted," etc., are waste motion, and offend the pure in heart.

In 2001, American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) wrote a piece in The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing, which he then expanded into a short book called Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing.
Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Curious, I then check my copy of Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, to see if she says anything about said usage. But, with no index and no memory of her covering this topic, I then moved on to the classic Elements of Style, by Strunk and White and found the following gem...

Do not explain too much.

It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like: “he said consolingly”; “she replied grumblingly.” Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributes with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.

Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art

"A freelance life is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it."


by Matt Hart

In May of 2012, author Neil Gaiman gave one of the greatest college commencement speeches of all time at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. It's called "Make Good Art," and in it he talks about his career, how he didn't go to college and has never had a career plan. Gaiman simply made it up as he went along. This isn't to encourage haphazardly going through life however, but instead it highlights the distinct ways not playing by the established rules can play to your favor.
  • First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great.
  • Secondly, If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.
  • Thirdly, When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.
  • Fourthly, I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name...”
  • And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
  • Sixthly. So make up your own rules. You get work, however you get work. People keep working in the freelance world because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
Revisit his speech in its entirety below:

Compliment Gaiman's work with the wonderful book by Carl Newport, that I found invaluable to getting anything done, called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldNow go craft some messages for your bottles.

Carl Sagan on Using Fear in Politics

"The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians found a way to subvert it—by cashing in on fear and patriotic hysteria."


by Matt Hart

Carl Sagan, the 20th century's patron saint of reason, common sense, and science education was a professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He became widely known for his role in teaching my mother's generation about the universe. His award winning book, Cosmos, became an award winning television series (both of which were named in honor of 19th century scientist Alexander von Humboldt's book by the same name). And in 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson rebooted the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey television series with the updated science, in one of the most informative programs to ever hit the airwaves (a true must-watch).

Sagan died on December 20, 1996, but not before he taught countless humans about the scientific method, the nature of reality, and put some wonderful books out into the world. In his final book, published just before his death, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan debunks such nonsense as alien abductions, faith healing, and the efficacy of prayer while leaving us with a toolkit for how to think and debunk bullshit.

In Chapter 24, which Sagen wrote with his wife Ann Druyan, they warn us to watch out for the political tactic of fear-mongering the 'other', and how politicians will use this fear to garner support from the credulous, poorly informed, and already scared. Reaching back to 1798 Sagan shows us the first example of a trend that is so clearly still being used in today's Presidential race.

"The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians found a way to subvert it—by cashing in on fear and patriotic hysteria. In 1798, the ruling Federalist Party knew that the button to push was ethnic and cultural prejudice. Exploiting tensions between France and the U.S., and a widespread fear that French and Irish immigrants were somehow intrinsically unfit to be Americans, the Federalists passed a set of laws that have come be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts."

 
se·di·tion; noun; conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.
The tactics used in this very election, of inciting fear in immigrants—this time around the Mexican people—are no different than 200 years ago.

 
"One Law upped the residency requirements for citizenship from five to 14 years. (Citizens of French and Irish origin usually voted for the opposition, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.) The Alien Act gave President John Adams the power to deport any foreigner who aroused his suspicions. Making the President nervous, said a member of Congress, “is the new crime.” Jefferson believed the Alien Act had been framed particularly to expel C.F. Volney, the French historian and philosopher; Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, patriarch of the famous chemical family; and the British scientists Joseph Priestey, the discover of oxygen and an intellectual antecedent to James Clerk Maxwell. In Jefferson’s view, these were just the sort of people America needed."

Keep in mind The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1996, not last week.

 
"From across two centuries, it's hard to recapture the frenzied mood that made the French and the "wild Irish" seem so grave a threat that we were willing to surrender our most precious freedoms. Giving credit for French and Irish cultural triumphs, advocating equal rights for them, was in effect decried in conservative circles as sentimental—unrealistic political correctness. But that's how it always works. It always seems an aberration later. But by then we're in the grip of the next hysteria."
Carl Sagan, 1994
"Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences, as it was then, perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin; different philosophies or religions; or maybe it’s drug use, violent crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or “desecrating” (literally, making unholy) the flag.

Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights. Yes, in 1942, Japanese-Americans were protected by the Bill of Rights, but we locked them up anyway—after all, there was a war on. The pre-texts change from year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion—even though experience plainly shows the dangers of such a course of action."
Whether you are looking for a toolkit for detecting bullshit or simply a science based argument against your neighbor's claims that he's been abducted by aliens—pick up this brilliant and timeless book. Or pair it with either of George Orwell's seminal novels, Animal Farm or 1984, in which, he so adeptly turns political writing into art.

A Secular Wedding Reading

I think you'd be surprised how hard it is to find a wedding reading that doesn't include God, Jesus, or some sort of supernatural whimsy. For our wedding a couple weeks ago I was unable to find any that were even remotely honest, scientifically literate, and intelligible. And I happen to share Friedrich Nietzsche's sentiment that "the poets lie too much." So, I wrote my own with a lot of help from Carl Sagan.

Of course, I was somewhat worried that people would hate it or that Tessa's brother Wyatt would simply refuse to read it in front of everyone on our big day. But, quite the opposite happened. So, at the request of some friends... here it is.  
"Today, consider the universe and your place in it.
You’re a thinking, feeling, curious, evolved ape on a rotating spheroid hurtling through space.
This pale blue dot is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.
We are tiny and we are temporary, but don’t fret—be emboldened.
Be emboldened by the urgency and importance that your one single precious life requires—it only underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another.
Tonight, look up at the night sky, consider your relationships, and strive to love deeply and live wildly… today, now, forever.
What will survive of us is love.” ~ Matt Hart

If you liked this, share it, then pair it with a long-form piece I wrote for Medium called "Four Days and Eight Million Years."

Hello World

Well, after spending the last decade deep in the sports science and ultrarunning trenches, it's time for a change in focus. I'm excited for this new chapter of my life, one where I'll be a journalist first, athlete (a distant) second. I know many people go through life not really sure what they want to do with their time, never finding meaningful work that excites them. I'm lucky to have managed to get a foothold in this freelance writing world, now we'll see if I can make a decent living at it. 

I will say, out of all my careers thus far—software test engineer, professional runner, endurance coach—freelance magazine writing is hands down the hardest... and I wouldn't have it any other way. Onward!