It’s a painful truth: more books are published in this world on any given Tuesday than we could possibly read over the course of a lifetime. Some readers find great comfort in the knowledge that it’s impossible to read every book they’d like to, while others feel the need to pile as many books as possible on their toppling to be read tower.
Today’s guest created a unique plan to help him select and then soak up the must-read books that will make a true difference in his life, but now he’s looking for less planning and more bookish serendipity.
Author, blogger, and podcaster Neil Pasricha hosts the show 3 Books, where he interviews avid readers about the three most formative books in their lives. The show originated as a way for Neil to find lesser known titles and backlist books to boost his reading life.
Now, he finds himself assigning himself too much “reading homework,” and he’s looking for ways to spend more time connecting with each book he reads instead of flying through them simply for the purpose of checking them off his list.
Neil came to me with a cocktail of titles to represent his favorites and has strong words for the beloved classic he didn’t love. We talk today about numerous aspects of the reading life; this conversation has something for every reader to take away. Plus, of course, a whole pile of book recommendations that might include a formative book for you.
ANNE: Hold on, hold on. We don't encourage book trashing.
NEIL: Oh, okay. I'm going to ... [ANNE LAUGHS] [CLEARS THROAT] One book that wasn't for me.
ANNE: There we go.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 289.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, we hear all the time from listeners who say they listen with pen in hand so they can jot down books they want to read. If that’s how you listen to the show I have a treat for you. I have a new reading journal coming out in September, and perfect for capturing your thoughts about what you've read, a keeping track of your TBR, browsing its book lists for inspiration, and even keeping track of the books you’ve loaned out (or borrowed from friends).
Right now if you preorder the journal you can get a sneak peek at some of those reading lists and a cute little bookmark/reading tracker that you can use to jot down titles down until your journal shows up. Order your copy of My Reading Life: a book journal wherever you buy books and then head to modernmrsdarcy.com/journal to claim your bonuses.
It’s a painful truth: more books are published in this world on any given Tuesday than we could possibly read over the course of an entire lifetime. Some readers find great comfort in the knowledge that it’s impossible to read every book they’d like, while others feel the need to pile as many books as possible on their toppling to be read tower to get through as many as they can. Well today’s guest created a unique plan to help him select and then soak up the must-read books that will make a true difference in his life, but now he’s looking for less planning and more bookish serendipity.
Author, blogger, and podcaster Neil Pasricha hosts the show 3 Books, where he interviews avid readers about the three most formative books in their lives. The show originated as a way for Neil to find lesser known titles and backlist books to boost his reading life. Now, he finds himself assigning himself too much “reading homework,” and he’s looking for ways to spend more time connecting with each book he reads instead of flying through them simply for the purpose of checking them off his list.
Neil came to me with a cocktail of titles to represent his favorites and has strong words for the beloved classic he didn’t love. We talk today about numerous aspects of the reading life; this conversation has something for every reader to take away. Plus, of course, a whole pile of book recommendations that might include a formative book for you.
Let’s get to it.
Neil, welcome to the show.
NEIL: Anne, thank you so much for having me. It's such a joy.
ANNE: I'm always happy to talk with you about ... Is it fair to say our mutual favorite thing? Books and reading?
NEIL: Definitely. I would tell ... I would say that in front of my wife and kids.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Well, Neil, the last time you and I got to talk books on a podcast was in a whole different and also rapidly changing world. You know, I tell people sometimes that you were the first person that I exchanged an elbow bump in greeting with at Union Square in New York City on what, like March 4th? Maybe? 2020.
NEIL: Yeah, I mean, it was right before it felt like things were going to be a problem.
ANNE: I mean, it's such a funny moment in a time because I happened to be setting off on book tour but I know I was at The Strand Friday night and we had a couple people cancel ... More than a couple. We had at least half a dozen people I know about cancel because of the pandemic. You know, it wasn't "the pandemic” at the time. It was the weird Covid-19 thing, but then I had a friend in town to do an event in Brooklyn on Monday just three days later and it was a ghost town, nobody came out. It was so different just those few days later, and I was glad to be home safe in Louisville [LAUGHS] and I still haven't gotten on an airplane since then.
NEIL: I know in a way it feels like so much time has passed. In a way it feels like a blink of an eye and hopefully it becomes a distant memory but it's wonderful in a way that the last thing I did before bunkering at home in Toronto was hanging out with you in the rare books room of The Strand with a recorder on my podcast.
ANNE: So here's what happened. I was going to be at The Strand I guess was it that night or was it the ...
NEIL: It was that night because you felt nervous because I was ... [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I was so nervous.
NEIL: I was like pulling out the recording equipment right on the floor and you were like do we have permission for this? I was like no, don't worry. What are they going to do, kick us out? You were like Neil, I have an event here.
ANNE: No, no, that's not what you said. You said the worst thing that'll happen is they'll kick us out and that's happened to me before and it's not a big deal to me, and I am such a good girl, Neil. I was just like oh my gosh. [LAUGHS]
NEIL: Plus in your defense, [ANNE LAUGHS] your name was on like a poster there that you were going to be appearing there that night so if you weren't able to show up because you'd been kicked out by security, that would look worse on you than it would've on me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: [SIGHS] My continuing journey in things I talk about with my therapist are ... [LAUGHS] That was the perfect atmosphere, but for the fact I was like oh my gosh are we breaking the rules? Are we breaking the rules? Because we're surrounded by these beautiful old books that just make you ... Like just you want to pet them and they're so good for ambience too. I mean not just like mood wise but they absorb the sound so nicely so our voices sound really good.
NEIL: Yeah it was a beautiful day asking you about your three most formative books and I guess in oh strange what you've asked me for three books I love and there are some common thread because one of the books you told me to read, I've never heard of before, I absolutely read it and I loved it and I fell into it and I bought it and I then invited the author of that book on my podcast, so like you ... There's a connective tissue between all book lovers around the world. We only really ... You know, it's not Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it's like two degrees of book lovers. We all kinda know someone who knows someone who reads books. Everybody knows everybody. It's a small world.
ANNE: It does feel that way. So we know you have a show called 3 Books. You love to read, but let's zoom out a little bit. Neil, where are you in the world? What do you do when you're not talking about books and reading on the ... I always want to say the airwaves, but they're not really airwaves. [NEIL LAUGHS] We'll just say when you're not talking about books and reading, like it's your job.
NEIL: Yeah, well I do that most of the time. So my name's Neil Pasricha. I am 41 years old at the time of this recording. I am sitting in my basement in Toronto, Canada right now. I am the father of four little boys, age 7 and younger, and the way I describe my career is I think right and speak about intentional living and that was a purposefully permissive blanket term to include anything from like happiness, gratitude, resilience, failure.
How did I get into that, Anne? Well ten years ago my wife left me and my best friend took his own life. Those things are horrible, terrible things. They happened in the span of a few days. I channel my heartbreak with a lot of therapy as well and a lot of terrible sleepiness nights into a blog called 1000awesomethings.com and for a thousand straight days I wrote one little thing to cheer me up. That's it. Like wearing warm underwear from out of the dryer. [ANNE LAUGHS] Walking by the smell of croissants at the bakery, right? Hitting a string of green lights if you're late for work. Just stuff like that and this blog kinda took off, went viral, and it turned into a book called The Book of Awesome and I have been riding the coattails of that book for a decade now.
ANNE: Wow, good work if you can get it.
NEIL: In my own personal life what was happening to me was I was struggling to get out there. I was … Everyone looked at me and they were like you're a success, but what they didn't know is I lost 40 lbs to the stress. I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping. I got three contacts in my phone. I found a bachelor apartment to live in in downtown Toronto. All my friends were married with kids in the Suburbs. I'm alone. I'm depressed. I'm not eating well. I'm not sleeping well. I was atrophying on the inside and it took me a number of years. I got online.
I started kinda dating again, and it took me another couple years until I met someone who called me back 'cause I like lots of people [ANNE LAUGHS] but they ghosted me. Her name's Leslie. She's a teacher in the Toronto district school board. We fell in love and I know full time writing books about how we live a great life and I started this podcast to push myself into reading more called 3 Books. You have been a huge inspiration for me. I absolutely love your work and the work you do on behalf of readers as what David Mitchell would call the Republic of Letters around the world and so, between the podcast, between writing, between raising my kids, that is my full life story and picture.
ANNE: What I noticed in all that is that you wanted to read more and so you basically made it your job - I want to hear how that's working out for you. I know we'll get into that more - but tell me more about how you arrived at your concept of wanting to discuss formative books with a variety of readers.
NEIL: When I was a kid, I loved reading. I think most kids do. You put a big picture book in their hands, they fall into like the vivid pond that the book provides. Like it's another ... It's an immersive world. I loved reading, and I remember loving reading but somehow in my twenties that love was just beaten out of me and I'm not going to blame kinda the others, I also blame myself but there's this combination of like having to read for school. You know, when you get all this have to stuff, eventually there's some small percentage that you actually like and a big percentage that you don't, so already I was like man, books, I don't know if they're for me.
Get to college, you get to university, well now I'm getting all these dry boring textbooks and when I get out, guess what? The world I'm in is what I perceive to be this like digitally saturated, like social media climate of endless dings and pings and like there's comments and there's blog worlds and there's newsfeeds and Twitter headlines and I was like I don't have time to read. I have time to consume a dose of social media, books themselves I've been convinced my adult life, my university days were like they're kinda boring and the stuff I had to read. Well that kinda sucked too, alright, at least I didn't resonate with a lot of it, so most of my twenties and thirties I read a couple books a year, which still puts me ahead of like half the people.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I know, isn't that ... Doesn't that blow your mind when you read the stats?
NEIL: Yeah, like a third of Americans haven't read a book in the last year, right? And so what happened was Leslie comes over and she's like where's all your books? And I know you know that quote. If you come over to someone's house and they don't have books, don't kiss them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You can buy a T-shirt at The Strand.
NEIL: And I could tell she was like disgusted by the fact that I didn't have books and I was like oh, I don't ... Yeah, I don't have time to read anymore and she's like you're an author. [ANNE LAUGHS] You wrote The Book of Awesome, like are you kidding me? She's like you are missing out on the biggest joy in the world and so overtime she kinda started to get … nudged me back into it.
Over the next year meet my sorta logical analytical brain decided to implement a series of like eight specific systems in my life to dramatically accelerate my reading rate. I cancelled cable. I cancelled my newspaper subscription. I cancelled my magazines. I installed a bookshelf at my front door. Committed publically to reading. I started a monthly book club which is a form of an email list where I tell everybody every month which five or ten books I'm going to read and I was like maybe only ten people on my mailing list, but then a group of 20 and 30 and I had this forced discipline that I had to tell people.
I am so enamored with myself, Anne, when my reading rate went from like three books a year to like 30 books a year, like I 10x'd my reading. [ANNE LAUGHS] Everybody wants to read more, so I designed another system, a bigger system, a more gigantic system, a 15-year long system to say okay, Neil, what are the 1000 most formative books in the world? What should I do? Should I check like bestseller lists? No. Should I check what's on display at the front of the bookstore or the front of the airport? No. That stuff's all paid for, you know, like they pay money to put that stuff there and it's mostly just celebrity stuff. So I was like how do you actually do it?
So my idea was if I could spend 15 years of my life, almost 15 years of my life finding 333 of the most interesting, inspiring people I could and I ask them, well which books most shaped your life? What inspired an ideal? What challenged a direction? What shaped a part of who you are? Then I'll buy those books, I'll read those books, and I'll interview people about those books and this is the pilgrimage I am on.
I started that podcast 3 Books in 2018. We're speaking in 2021 and the show ends September 1st, 5:52 AM 2031. The reason I know that is because I publish every single chapter of my show the exact minute of every new moon and full moon because I don't trust the Gregorian calendar. It's invented by a pope 500 years ago. Who knows how many days February has? I mean we just don't really know these things, so I trust the lunar calendar. It's 30,000 years old. It's deep. It is grounded. It is centering like books.
ANNE: I love that you have faith that people would still be podcasting in 2031.
NEIL: [LAUGHS] Yeah, well I'll be podcasting. I mean, that's what ... I know that.
ANNE: Who knows what we'll be listening on, but you'll be there, and knowing that you talked to all these readers about their most formative books, I'm really excited to hear what has risen to the surface in your reading, whether it's because other readers turned you on to the path of these books or you found them on your own when you started reading way more books.
NEIL: Yeah, well the biggest thing that I learned when I started reading people's most formative books is I haven't read much. [LAUGHS] Like everyone that was suggesting stuff that you would think I would have heard of or read, you know, number 1000 on the show is Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, when that was put on the show by my wife. I hadn't read Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. The next person I interviewed, chapter two, was a guy named Frank Warren, and he runs a really popular website called PostSecret.com, well he introduced me to a book called Hard Times by Studs Terkel. I read the wrong Hard Times. [ANNE GASPS]
I read Hard Times by Charles Dickens to prepare for the interview. [ANNE LAUGHS] I get to the interview, I've got Hard Times by Charles Dickens, and I'm like so I've got some questions and he's like that's the wrong book. I said you said Hard Times! And he said I had said Hard Times by Studs Terkel. I was like who's Studs Terkel? Like I hadn't even heard of the name. [ANNE LAUGHS] Then you know he had Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I hadn't read either of those and this kept happening.
The biggest thing I wanted to tell people is a million new books come out in English alone every year. 500,000 by the big five publishers, 500,000 self-published. You do the math, you're like oh, yeah, 3-5,000 books come out a day, and so in an era of infinite choice, the value of curation skyrockets. Most people like I said pick up a thing of, a pilot at an airport, see what's on the bestseller list, it doesn't resonate with them, they think oh I'm not a good reader or I don't like books. Those are the books that are heavily marketed and advertised and they're paying to be there.
To find books that really change lives, you really need to fly down to Key West Florida, sit down in Judy Blume's bookstore, which is what I did, and I said, Judy, what three books changed your life, she's like well you must have read Madeline. I was like Madeline? Who's that? I've never heard of Madeline! She's like I stole that book from the New Jersey Library when I was 9 years old. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know what, it holds up! It's a wonderful book! It's a picture book, so you can read it in ten minutes and how satisfying does that feel? And then you've got a book that's on any best seller list. It's not on any airport table. It's not the front of any bookstore and you probably wouldn't have found it if you don't get someone telling you about it. That's how I feel anyway.
ANNE: Well Neil, I can't wait to hear the specific titles you chose for today especially because you've already heavily hinted at one. I don't wanna keep readers in suspense.
ANNE: You know how this works. You're going to tell me three books you love, one book you don't, and what you've been reading lately, and we'll talk about what you should read next. Now tell me how you chose these.
NEIL: I basically thought okay, let me try to give a diverse cocktail here. I walked over to my bookshelf. By the way, when we moved, I said Leslie's number one criteria for buying a home was light, you know, like you gotta have enough light in the house. Mine was a room where I can install all the bookshelf I've always dreamed of, and what is the bookshelf I've always dreamed of, Anne? It's got like really thick shelves so they never sag, like they're thick wood and in all the corners it's got like front facing displays. I spent a chunk of money and installed floor to ceiling bookshelves in this one room and it's heaven. The only problem is now all the bookshelves are full. We're not going to ever leave this house, so I have a problem now.
ANNE: We can go to support group together. I am right there with you.
NEIL: Exactly. I'm trying to convince Leslie to give me more walls in the same room. She’s like … I'm like we're going to have to get rid of this couch. I gotta have another floor to ceiling bookshelf. I walk over to the bookshelf. I look at the books. I see what resonates with me. I feel my energy and my heart and my connection with different parts of the shelf at different times and different moods and so you asked me hey, what are three favorite books and I picked three off the shelf.
ANNE: Tell me about book one.
NEIL: The first book that I brought to talk about today is Walkable City by Jeff Speck.
ANNE: Ohh. I love it. I'm so proud.
NEIL: Because you introduced it to me! I asked you to come on my show and I was like okay, tell me about your three most formative books. You were like yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. You were like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Walkable City by Jeff Speck. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I'm like I've heard of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, I've heard of that book. Haven't read it. The Great Gatsby, I had to read it when I was in high school.
ANNE: I chose The Great Gatsby? I debated about this so hard because I'm sure on your show too many, many of your guests could choose three different books on three different days. I remember you asking me about Pilgrim and Death standing in the rare books of The Strand but I could not remember the third.
NEIL: Yeah, Great Gatsby, and then you suggest this book, Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Well honestly I would … This is part of the joy of getting to do what we do is when asking what my three favorite books are, I don't know what they're going to pick, so you picked a book about urban planning. I'm like I would never read a book about urban planning. Who cares! It's just a bunch of cars and housing, I don't think there's that much science to it.
Well this guy Jeff Speck not only takes you through all the reasons why you thought you knew about how cities are designed is actually wrong and how cities should be totally redesigned differently and he gives some great examples, but he writes with this really jumpy, funny, acerbic, witty tone that pulls you through the book like a hook in your chest and I read that book on the plane from Toronto to New York to come interview you and it just stuck with me. I loved it. How often do you get off a plane after reading a book and the person waiting for you at the end of the airplane figuratively 'cause you were in Union Square, you weren't actually in Newark Airport, and you're ready to talk about it. [ANNE LAUGHS] It was like a joyous moment.
I fell into this guy's world of like thinking about urban design. It completely changed how I thought about cities as I walk through them and I'm lucky that I live in a very walkable city. I live in downtown Toronto, Canada. It's very walkable, and then I invited Jeff Speck to come on 3 Books and then he comes on. We end up talking about you, and then he gives me his three most formative books. It's kinda like another layer deep and of course then he tips me off to this woman I should probably know because she lived in Toronto named Jane Jacobs, right? The Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and you think I read that? No! Of course not. That's my biggest point. I haven't read anything. That's the whole point of the show.
And then he tips me off to a book called Suburban Nation which is the first book he wrote for these architects that he kinda fell in love with and the way you can get someone who you're in love with to fall in love with you is you say to them I love you so much that I will write your book for you, and that's what he did. These two partners at this famous architecture firm who’re doing all this stuff that he was thinking about, so he pestered them for like a decade and then he wrote this book. He got his name in the title there too, but really it's Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and the book is called Suburban Nation, and so why all this book?
'Cause it's a story, Anne. It's a story of how I met you, it's a story of how I live. It's a story of how we could live better and it was also a little funnel into learning more about this world, so it was just a nice little piece of mind expansion over the last couple of years that I really, really treasure and none of that would have happened if you hadn't told me about this book.
ANNE: Well I'm so glad you found it and that you enjoyed it. I'm sure I told you 'cause I tell everybody that I can't resist talking about Walkable City to that it really changes the way you see the world as you're moving through the city streets and I'm really excited for you to actually get out into the world again when Covid is over and take your new Walkable City informed eyes out on the streets of new places.
NEIL: Me too. I cannot. [LAUGHS] You're like making me drool. I can't wait.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Sounds pretty good, right? Neil, tell me about book two.
NEIL: Book two I'm going to go with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
ANNE: Let me tell you right off, Neil, I have not read this one.
NEIL: Okay great. And so I get to go on a little bit of a rant here maybe. There's a book called If On A Winter's Night a Traveler. It's written by Italo Calvino maybe 40 years ago. Do you know this book?
ANNE: I do, I do. We've talked about it on What Should I Read Next.
NEIL: Basically what David Mitchell thought was I will put a mirror up to the end of that book. That book opens with all these chapters that don't go anywhere and they're interspersed with a number of chapters talking to you about your reading experience of this book as it's happening. Very meta. So David Mitchell's like okay what if there was this journal, a physical journal and what if a guy kept notes to himself in this journal 500 years ago? But he lost the journal and it was picked up and continued by somebody else. That's the book.
The first hundred pages are a journal of this guy like you're trying to figure out who he is, he's like on this ship. He's going somewhere, and then it suddenly cuts, and suddenly cuts mid sentence to another guy who then starts writing about how he finds this book about a hundred years later and then that suddenly cuts. It's a Russian doll’d book. It goes past where we live today, well into the future, and then it comes all the way back. He closes off all those stories kinda in a Russian Doll sense that sorta second half of each of those six stories that he opened.
Well I only heard about this book in a backwards way because at the Toronto International Film Festival in 201.0 Leslie and I were like looking for tickets to something and we ended up walking into the room we never heard called Cloud Atlas starring Tom Hanks, you know, Halle Berry, and it was a 27 minute standing ovation. Seriously 'cause they introduced all the characters like one by one after and it was on the front page of the L.A. Times the next day. They’re like longest standing ovation in history. Well that made me want to get the book that it was based on 'cause I never heard of it before. The movie was made by the Wachowski siblings and the book was called Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I fall into this book and I fall deep into this book. I'm like this is the best book I've ever read. I read every single David Mitchell ever written, so there's nine of them. He's a wonderful author. Totally span genres and time periods.
He has a multiverse operating between all of his books. He has written a coming of age story set in England in the 1970s. He's written this book which I've told you has like elements of sci-fi, kinda goes from the past to the future. He's written books about music. Below the surface of all his books is a multiverse, meaning different characters [LAUGHS] from one book appear in other books in different contexts and settings. Different names and places are referenced, and there's entire wikis operating online trying to map and track all the stuff he's doing between all of his unrelated books or seemingly unrelated books. I think the man is a complete genius. I use this book as motivation to write when I wanna write and I don't feel like writing. I read any sentence from this book and it just makes me think I can write a sentence like that. The truth is I can't, [ANNE LAUGHS] but the thing is I think to myself I can and then I start writing and then it sorta gets me going. It's my nitro book. It's a beautiful book.
ANNE: And Neil, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?
NEIL: It's actually not really a book. It is a letter that was written 2000 years ago which is now in a book form, and it's called On The Shortness of Life by the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca. Seneca the Under. So this guy lived in Ancient Rome 2000 years ago. Who cares! Well at the time he was one of the most powerful people in the world. He helped train and tutur Emperor Nero when he was the equivalent of an investment banker. He like owned a ton of real estate, and he wrote all these letters as you did back then. Well people kept all the letters. They put them into books. It's a wonderful book by penguin called Letters from a Stoic which is all of Seneca's letters.
This specific letter has been retitled On The Shortness of Life. It is the equivalent of a 25 page essay and it feels and sounds like an email that your best friend sent you today. It really feels that contemporary, telling you to just chill out. Life's not really that short. It's long if you know how to live it. Protect your time like the way you protect your property and you're going to be good. Like it's a motivational speech from 2000 years ago. I have bought the Penguin's Great Ideas verison of this. It's kinda out of print now so I think so you can find it online and whenever I find a stack I buy like a bunch of copies. I keep a stack on my bookshelf and I always keep one copy in my suitcase because whenever I land somewhere, say I'm coming to visit you and give a speech in Louisville or something, I land at, you know, a Motel 6 at 1 in the morning and I always feel like anxious and stressed out and I read this book and it just calms me down.
ANNE: Serious question. It might sound a little snarky but I mean it. What is it with dudes who work on the internet and Seneca? This is a thing, no?
NEIL: [LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah, totally. I think what happened if I'm looking at it from a distance and I have not, I don't know for sure if this is it, but when you search for timeless wisdom, for the most part you're going to end up with the bible, the vedas, the quran, the torah, right, and the other thing that stood the test of time that's been around for thousands of years is like the Tao Te Ching, like the ancient Chinese philosophy by Lao Tzu if Lao Tzu even existed, 'cause it's debatable. Or whether it's just wisdom through 5000 years of kinda Chinese philosophy, and then you bump into a guy named Marcus Aurelius. He was like the first ever kinda Emperor to be trained Emperor like he wasn't natural lineage, and he kept a diary to himself which he never meant for publication which got published as a book called Meditations and you bump into Seneca.
So you bump into these people. You bump into Epictetus who wrote a book, he was a slave in Rome. It wasn't a book at the time but now it was put together a book called The Art of Living, and so what I'm saying is if you just do a deep search for things that have stood the test of time, you're going to bump into largely religious fare and occasional some secular stuff which is this stuff, so depending on your own personal belief system, you pick what resonates with you and so your question is aps, I don't know. [ANNE LAUGHS] Maybe - maybe these guys are nonreligious or more secular and they're searching for something that stood the test of time and they don't want the latest thing on the bestseller list and so this is the kinda where they end up.
ANNE: I've not read Seneca yet although I will say it's probably time and I do appreciate how a short classic means you can see what all the fuss is about in a little bit of time.
NEIL: Copyright doesn't last 2000 years, so you can just Google any of this stuff and kinda get a taste for it if you like it, and then if you love it then you can go and kinda buy the book and keep it in your suitcase forever.
ANNE: That's an excellent point. Alright, Neil, change of pace. Tell me about a book that was not right for you.
NEIL: Yeah, sure, and I wanted to go with like a big name author. It's really easy to take down someone no one's heard of but I'm going Roald Dahl. By the way, I love Roald Dahl. You know, James and The Giant Peach one of my favorites. BFG one of my favorites. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory one of my favorites, but I’m going to trash ...
ANNE: You don't have to ... Hold on, hold on. We don't encourage book trashing.
NEIL: Oh, okay. I'm going to ... [ANNE LAUGHS] [CLEARS THROAT] One book that wasn't for me.
ANNE: There we go.
NEIL: Was Matilda by Roald Dahl because you know what it's just too sadistic. Here I am like trying to page through Roald Dahl books trying to find good books for my kids. If the books 150 pages, well 140 pages are of like severe beatings. You know, like people are getting pulled by their hair and whipped against walls and I'm like … I've read The Twits and The Witches and I know what I'm in here for when I get to Roald Dahl but there's something just over the top grotesque and violent and I cannot watch stuff that's ... I can't watch ... I can't even watch Game of Thrones. When I know that a show has got blood in it or like violence in it, it's too much for me. It's overwhelming and Matilda by Roald Dahl, although it's a book for children, [LAUGHS] it's too violent for me. My G-rated eyes and brain can't handle it.
ANNE: It's so interesting to me how books that we've read in our childhoods when we come back to them as adults we often go like oh my gosh, did I really read this when I was nine? And I imagine many listeners are like revisiting Matilda in their minds right now. Neil, what are you reading right now?
NEIL: The book I'm reading right now and I have to admit that I'm like maybe an inch deep into like a dozen different books so I have this kinda constant bookmarks everywhere, things folded, things like dog-eared everywhere, but I'm right now in the middle of The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov if I said his name right. It is a crazy book about basically how the devil suddenly shows up in Moscow in a time and an age where Moscow is largely atheist. People do not believe in religion and he shows up and just causes havoc and although that sounds like a really simple premise, and it is, there's something about the way this story is told, the pacing, the characters, the darkness, the dread, you can feel the heaviness of this book. There's like a black cloud floating over a lot of the scenes and all the characters. It's just unputdownable and it didn't come out until decades after Bulgakov died because presume censorship. I'm reading that now. It's one of my first ever kinda Russian literature books in my life, so I'm really, really enjoying the pilgrimage into this whole universe of books and War and Peace and those types of books are still in my distant horizon but starting with something like this is great and I'll also recommend just to stick in here like The Duel by Chekhov because he wrote really, really short plays.
ANNE: We've hinted at this a little bit so far in this episode but I'd love to hear more about what you'd like to be different in your reading life right now.
NEIL: Well the ironic thing for me is I railed against, you heard me railing against this sorta like you have to read like you have to read Shakespere. You have to read A Separate Peace. You have to read Lord of the Flies. You have to buy all these textbooks for your college courses and they're dry and they're boring and they're just painful to get through. I railed against that and yet I think my antidote to that was to create this podcast called 3 Books. I ended up creating a prison for myself that's almost akin to the same thing I was trying to escape in the first place. So I basically now get homework from everybody.
Right now we're talking. Literally 10 minutes before we started talking I found out Quentin Tarantino is going to be confirmed on my podcast. That's wonderful. Now I'm going to be reading his book that he's just written and I'm going to be reading his three most formative books so of course for the next couple of weeks, and that's all I can read, and it just keeps happening every couple of weeks and they're not usually as big name guests as Quentin Tarantino but they're somebody and I got to read their three most. And so then at the end of the year, I've had - I've had to have read 78 books by my math just to keep my podcast going. I'm in prison! I don't have time to read anything I just like browse by and pick up on my own for the next decade. Help me, Anne! Help me get out of this prison.
ANNE: Okay, I have a question for you actually 'cause you accidentally conducted a little experiment. When Frank Warren chose Hard Times as one of his most formative books, you read the wrong book, which means you didn't read his book and how did that conversation go?
NEIL: It went great. First of all, we got to laugh and joke about that, and then I got to ask more generic questions. I think part of it is I'm a Type A kinda gold star overachiever so I'm like well I want to ask really good questions, I want good questions to be like Oprah style. On page 188 I have double underlined this phrase, you know, like I want to be able to ask those kind of juicy questions but I can't do that if I haven't read the book, so I ask more high level questions, well what's it about, Frank? Who should read it, Frank? And guess what, sometimes high level is better, then everybody wants to go 20,000 leagues under the sea on every single book. Maybe my obsessiveness with books is the problem here. [ANNE LAUGHS] Is that what you're trying to say? You made me realize that myself, thank you. You're a good therapist.
ANNE: I'm simply wondering. Now something else I'm wondering about is you've said numerous times how much you've enjoyed reading and what you've discovered that you wouldn't have otherwise. I'm wondering if it's truly a prison. I wonder if you didn't feel like you were stuck, if you would find these circumstances unattractive.
NEIL: Mm. Yeah, you're right. You're right, yeah. It's that old adage of like instead of saying I have to, say I get to, and I do often say I get to. I get to do this, but sometimes I say, I have to, especially when I have an interview two days from now and I have two books to read that I haven't cracked open, so I'm thinking okay, I got a 300 page book tonight and a 300 page book tomorrow and the only way I'm going to read those two books is if I'm like hardcore staring at the book fast flipping, skimming around, maybe jumping a chapter if I think I can get away with it. Like it's not healthy reading. [LAUGHS] It's like going to an all you can eat buffet and stuffing the food down your mouth as soon as possible. It's not enjoying and savoring.
ANNE: I am sorry to say this is a phenomenon with which I am familiar.
NEIL: I don't believe in speed reading, and I'm not that fast of a reader and yet I find myself in predicaments where I feel like I suddenly need to read before, before, before, and maybe people feel this like I gotta return ... I’m seeing Sally on Saturday and I've had this book ... I've had her book for a year so I better like read it now or like we've got the book club meeting on Thursday and today's Wednesday night, like I ... [LAUGHS] So whenever it is, if you feel pressure to read, I have to grow my internal muscles on getting more consciously with just reading the front, reading the back, reading the first chapter, and doing all that at a slow pace is starting to maybe like connecting with the book, like brushing it over in my mind in a gentler and slightly less rough and fast way. That's the thing I gotta work on. My over obsessiveness.
There's more books in the world than I'll ever possibly read ... I just told you ... There's about 3 - 5,000 new ones published a day in English alone, so you can either feel the weight of drowning at the bottom of this endless pile of ideas and stories and emotions, or you can feel so thrilled by the idea that the next book you choose will be from an ever greater pile of experiences and stories and joys, so take pleasure in what you're picking. Savor the books you're reading and don't feel the guilt or the shame or the stress around that. Just enjoy the process and read what you love.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Neil, I love how you walked yourself around in a little circle here.
NEIL: Yeah, I'm talking to myself now.
ANNE: Neil, before we press record, you were telling me how while sometimes you talk to guests with names our listeners would recognize. You mentioned a handful of them, but sometimes you talk to readers like the reader that you met at a gas station literally, not long ago, and you ended up recording the podcast episode the same day.
NEIL: Yeah. I think of a 2 by 2 matrix and one axis is called famous or not famous, and the other axis is called interesting or not interesting, and I'm very interested in the interesting people, and I don't really care if they're famous or not. I once sat on a plane besides a guy who I got talking and turns out he was a very well known star and his father was an even bigger name, one of the largest names you've ever heard of in the hip hop world, and we ended up hitting it off, we traded phone numbers, we're going to hang out in Toronto and it sounds great. And then I say so do you read books? And he says nope. When’s the last book you read? And he says can't think of it. I'm like I'm not going to be able to have this guy on my podcast [ANNE LAUGHS] because I would like interesting over famous, not famous over interesting.
Take it from another perspective. I was walking down the streets of Toronto. Two really, really young, friendly guys wearing ties start talking to me about my day, like hi. How you doing? Are you having a good day? I'm like this is a bit weird. Well it takes me about ten minutes to realize that they're Mormon missionaries, Anne, and they're teenagers. I guess as young as you can possibly be to do this. They're bothing living away from their families in a country they've never been to before which is Canada. They've got no friends here. They're not permitted to consume any form of outside media other than the Book of Mormon.
So I then go inside their church, [LAUGHS] the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, and we talk about The Book of Mormon, which is one of their first most formative books and we talk about two other books, and we hold hands and we're crying and we're talking about the difficulty of being in families where people choose different paths and I ended up walking away from the interview feeling like my life was really touched and really connected and I got to learn more about a religion that I knew nothing about. And I think it's one of the best conversations I've ever had and it's with two teenage Mormon missionaries called Missing Mom to Make Miracles. That's what I titled the show.
ANNE: Well the reason I asked if you recorded the same day, unless you were extraordinarily lucky, I can't imagine that you had read those books already.
NEIL: Right, exactly. Yeah. I didn't have the time to get in my own way. I should either remember that and not get in my own way and not obsess about it or I should be conscious of being my naturally obsessive self and embracing that for when I do do that.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] What's missing from your reading life right now is time for you to read books of your own choosing. What would you choose, and I don't want you to overthink this, but just give me a few titles that pop into your head when I ask that question.
NEIL: It's less of a title and more of an atmosphere. What I want to do that I don't currently do enough of is open the door to an independent bookstore and picking up books at the front display and seeing the books that are featured in the window and reading the first few pages and anytime a book just hooks me, I just buy it, and I just believe that it's going to change my life and I'm going to fall into it. So it's that browsing that I miss. It's the picking up what I like that I'm missing. It's the like following my instincts more, like when we were together in The Strand you remember the displays there. You remember how awesome those displays are. What you want to do is just eat all those displays and I'm not able to do that much in my life right now. I'm able to buy the books, but I'm not usually able to read them. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Neil, let's take a look at what you love and hate in your reading life. First you chose Walkable City by Jeff Speck, a nonfiction work about urban planning that you were surprised to love. Next up we have Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Did you call this a Russian nesting doll of a novel?
NEIL: Yeah. It's how it's organized. The book structure is like that.
ANNE: And then third we have the book you have a copy of in your suitcase at all times On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. Not for you Matilda by Roald Dahl. It just offends your G-rated reading sensibilities. Needlessly violent and angry. We gotta say what you want to be different in your reading life. That's that you feel like your show is the boss of your reading life and not you, particularly that there's no room for bookish serendipity and what you’d really love to do is just wander into an independent bookstore. You just want to see what strikes your eye and grab it and go with it, instead you feel like you are in as you said prison.
So what I really want to do is say here what you should read next. Just wander into your independent bookstore, grab whatever looks good and go home and sit down. But if you'd like some titles to serve as backup, we're going to give you those too. And I have to say I'm deliberately choosing books that are short because I want to give you the satisfaction of checking a book off your list 'cause you said you're type A and you find that really compelling and satisfactory I think. Is that fair?
ANNE: But I want to give you plenty of time, plenty of reading time to read those other books. I would also challenge you to maybe thoughtfully only read two books of an upcoming interview and just see how that feels.
ANNE: 'Cause you've done it before.
NEIL: I needed someone to tell me that. Thank you.
ANNE: Now at one point you needed the motivation to read and so you created a show that got you reading. If you find out no actually that's what I need to do, that's what I want to do, that's fine but just experiment with like [LAUGHS] putting the key in the lock and opening that door and freeing yourself of one book, so you could read a book of your own choosing. It's not that you're not going to be reading. You're just going to be reading something else, and maybe that will serve you well. Maybe that will help you make connections with your podcast guests that you wouldn't have been able to make otherwise. It's not necessarily all downside to not reading.
NEIL: Mmhmm. I like that.
ANNE: Let's jump in. The first book I have in mind I'm sure you can piece together how my brain went this direction. We have Walkable City. We have nonfiction philosophy. It actually is enormously freeing to me to hear you say that you haven't read that much because oftentimes talking to guests I think oh surely you've read any title I could pull out of my pocket. How am I going to be able to come up with something?! The book I have in mind is a book in translation unless you read Norwegian by an author of that country named Erling Kagge who has a fascinating CV. He's a publisher and explorer and writer and I believe artist. Seriously his resume is a thing to behold, but the specific book I have in mind for you is called Walking One Step At a Time and this is a little hard to categorize genre wise because it's a little bit personal story, a little bit philosophical meditation on how the act of walking is grounding and expansive.
I told you that I have never read Seneca, but hearing how you described it, how it sounded fresh and new and thoughtful and grounded and like wisdom that will last for the ages, but also feels completely relevant to today, you've mentioned in enjoying walking through your neighborhood in Toronto. I think you may enjoy this short. It's a small format book. It's less than 200 pages about the power of walking. He talks about the kinesthetic experience and what it does for our brains and our bodies and our souls. I took a ridiculous number of notes in my book journal reading this and I think you may find his words interesting and thought provoking but also really grounding and calming and based on how you described yourself and the reading experiences you enjoy, that sounds like a really good combination for you. How does that sound?
NEIL: It sounds wonderful. I never heard of it before. I'm super interested in books about walking. I actually read a book about walking a couple weeks ago that did not fill me up. It did not work for me. It's called The Art of Flaneuring: How to Wonder WIth Intention and Discover Better Life by Erica Owen and no offense to Erica Owen but I was like looking for the book about walking that you were describing, like had not found it yet. I'm very excited to check out Walking One Step At a Time by Kagge who I'll look up the spelling of that name later. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: If you like this one, you may want to enjoy his other works like Philosophy for Polar Explorers which is exactly that. It's a combination of things you never could go together but do in the pages of another short small format, work in translation for English readers. Okay, next I'm really thinking of another work in translation for you. I'm thinking of a French novel. I didn't intend to make this a journey across Europe but here we go. What it's called depends on the translator in the version. Tell me what sounds better to you. Do you want to read Mend the Living or do you want to read The Heart?
NEIL: I'll read Mend the Living.
ANNE: Okay, read Mend the Living. It's the same book and this is the story of a heart transplant. And what made me think this could be a good fit for you is I haven't read David Mitchell but I am very familiar with the format of that novel because I'm a writer, and when writers get together they nerd out about things like structure and style and tone and the structure of that book is something that writers like to talk about, and I think you may enjoy the way that the author Maylis de Kerangal approaches the telling of this story. It's centered around a man whose name is Simon Limbeau. Read the translator's note, that name was chosen with great care. He's a 20 year old surfer who dies in a tragic accident.
So when he dies, a clock starts ticking and you see the first person spring into action and that is the employee of the hospital whose role is to discuss the possible donation of his organs with the family, so by turns, you see the perspective of this man and his life and what he does from the hospital. They pull in his parents. I have to say right now this book is not graphic in any way. There's no surgical scenes that show you like up close, connecting things, but it is very sad in places and that is something I should have seen coming and did not, so readers, take note of that.
But you see his parents and his sisters. You see the nurses who assist. You see the head of the medical department that has, you know, made headlines across the world by pioneering these transplants procedures and nobody likes him, but everybody comes along on his Sunday morning bike rides 'cause it's good for their careers, and just the way that she paints these pictures of the various people that you know would be involved in a heart transplant but also the ones that you wouldn't think of as fascinating and really gives multiple slices of life the way she pivots from person to person and scene to scene is really fascinating and just deeply human.
And then of course she focuses on the recipient of the donor heart and what it means to her and what she's scared of and it's not what you think and who cares about her and what she's thinking and the whole story takes place in 24 hours. I hope that you will find it a book that you didn't know you wanted to read that is fascinating and strangely suspenseful because you know how it's going to end up, and just a wise meditation on the human condition that goes into topics that you just didn't know that you wanted to read about. How does that sound to you?
NEIL: It sounds wonderful. I'm going to order both of these from my independent bookstore after the show.
ANNE: I'm happy to hear it. Okay I really wanted to tell you about a Haruki Murakami book. I thought Kafka on the Shore could be a good pick for you. There are a few violent scenes but because you like David Mitchell ...
NEIL: I can handle it.
ANNE: Murakami says somewhere in that book is that the best way to think about reality is to get as far away from it as possible. That's discussed in the book and also I think probably describes his approach to the books he writes, but I really want to tell you, go read Klara and the Sun. It's a wonderful book. You haven't read Ishiguro. It's new. People are talking about it. That's the one you're going to be looking for at your independent bookstore when you stumble through the doors. That's book three. Put it on your list. How does that sound?
NEIL: It sounds wonderful, Anne. Thank you. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Of the books we talked about today. Gosh, we covered a lot of ground, but of those final three, we discussed Walking One Step At a Time by Erling Kagge, Mend the Living, also available in translation as The Heart in English speaking countries. That's by Maylis de Kerangal, and we scooted past Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami but we're landing with Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Of those books, Neil, what do you think you'll read next?
NEIL: Well it's tempting. Kafka on the Shore, Klara and the Sun, like the both K and S, both Japanese authors. I kinda feel like I need to get both of those.
ANNE: There's a beautiful symmetry there. I won't deny it.
NEIL: Yeah. Yeah. I put both of them on my nightstand on either side of the bed and then see which way my arm leans that night before I fall asleep. [ANNE LAUGHS] I'm going to get all of them. I appreciate this. This is wonderful selections and I haven't read any of them and I haven't heard of any of them except for the Ishiguro and Murakami ones, but I haven't heard of those first two. I'm excited to check them out.
ANNE: Well I'm excited also, and I can't wait to hear what you think. Neil, thank you so much for talking books again with me today. It has been a pleasure.
NEIL: I can't wait til our next chat in 2047.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Neil, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/289 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
If you’d like to hear more of Neil and I talking books, listen to my episode of 3 Books, called: Anne Bogel believes books build bridges and boost bibliophile belonging. There’s a link directly to that episode in today’s show notes.
For more of Neil’s work, check out his book The Book of Awesome, available wherever new books are sold. And check out his blog and sign up for his terrific newsletter at Neil.blog.
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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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•Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
•Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel
•Hard Times by Charles Dickens
•Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
♥Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck
•Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
•The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
•The Life and Death of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
•Suburban Nation: The Rise and Sprawl and Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
♥Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
•If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
♥On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It by Seneca
•Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
•Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
•The Art of Living by Epictetus
•James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
△Matilda by Roald Dahl
•The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
•“The Duel” by Anton Chekhov
•A Separate Peace by John Knowles
•Lord of the Flies by William Golding
•The Book of Mormon, translated by Joseph Smith
•Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge
•Mend the Living (or The Heart) by Maylis de Kerangal
•Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
•Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro