What to Read Next (No. 163): creativity // a great bookish interview // birthday sale!

The Art of Impossible, Big Magic, and an interview with James Mustich

This week I’m featuring two books that tackle the craft of creative living—which is much broader than just the category of people who earn their living from the arts. While the books take a different approach, both were incredibly inspiring and motivating for me and I highly recommend ‘em. I’ll keep the takes short-ish, because . . .

This edition also includes a long and delightful interview with James Mustich, author of the endlessly page-flippable 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

Before jumping in, there’s one more thing:

Birthday Sale!

In honor of my 33rd birthday—which doesn’t technically exist, given that I’m a Leap Day baby—I’m offering 33% off the first year of an annual subscription. That’s about $17 off! You’ll get access to the premium archives, at least one exclusive piece of content a week, a Read More Books bookmark (being professionally designed right now), and personalized book recommendations whenever you need one. It also goes a long way towards supporting what I’m doing here. This week, premium members got a look at my favorite space books, inspired by the Perseverance rover landing on Mars.

You need to use this link to get the deal, which is valid through next Thursday:

Birthday Deal!

Have questions about becoming a premium member? Let me know, or check out the details here.

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler

Published: 2021 | Pages: 281

“You get one shot at this life, and you’re going to spend one-third of it asleep. So what do you choose to do with the remaining two-thirds? That is the only question that matters. . . . you lose by not trying to play full out, by not trying to do the impossible—whatever that is for you.”

Kotler’s The Rise of Superman is one of the books I recommend most; the extreme sports anecdotes and insights into how to achieve a flow state are mind-bendingly interesting.

This new book is a continuation of his lifelong work of helping people achieve their big goals. The Art of Impossible walks through, in fine detail, every step on the path towards the impossible—“the feats that no one, including ourselves, at least for a while, ever imagined we’d be capable of accomplishing.”

There are scientific/psychological insights on creativity, flow, motivation, grit, even compiling your weekly calendar and to-do list. Right on page 1, Kotler calls this book a “practical playbook for impractical people.”

It’s nitty gritty—in a good way—and fills a very concrete need in the world of motivational books. If how-tos are your thing, don’t look any further. After reading, it really does feel like you can achieve what seems like a crazy, impossible goal (though it certainly won’t be an easy road). While I usually roll my eyes at these types of books, every few years there’s one that stands out from the crowd. The Art of Impossible is that stand-out.

Related books I’ve read/reviewed: The Rise of Superman, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Deep Work by Cal Newport (read my review), Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

Books added to my reading list: William James, Drive by Daniel Pink, Range by David Epstein (I’d like to read it again)

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Published: 2015 | Pages: 276

“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” 

Before Big Magic, I’d only ever made fun of Gilbert’s work, entirely based on hearsay of Eat, Pray, Love. That memoir was among the first in the “finding yourself” tradition that ultimately spawned Wild, Untamed, and countless others in between.

Turns out I shouldn’t have criticized her before reading her books! In this manifesto, she frames creative living as more of a spiritual pursuit than a checklist to be marked off line by line. As much as the how-to is needed (though often just once or twice), so is permission, freedom, and raw inspiration—and those things need refreshing on a regular and continual basis:

“What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?” 

While Gilbert spends plenty of ink on the importance of showing up day after day, it’s mostly about allowing yourself to move beyond your fears—in all their numerous manifestations: of failure, of success, of running out of steam, of committing to an idea.

Ultimately, in whatever form it takes, Gilbert exhorts the reader to “follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” 

Related books I’ve read/reviewed: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (read my review), Misery by Stephen King (read my review), Turning Pro & The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (read my (short) review)

Books added to my reading list: Gilbert’s books, especially The Last American Man and The Signature of All Things; also Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

A Few Bookish Questions With James Mustich

James Mustich is the author of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, which I love flipping through now and again when I need some reading inspiration. He also has a delightful, thought-provoking bookish newsletter that goes out every other week. It’s one of the can’t-miss reads to hit my inbox.

1. You wrote the book on books! I can hardly ask about your very favorite book, but are there a few that pop into your head right away when thinking about what you most recommend or gift or think about? Does this answer ever change?

You're right in suspecting the answer changes. I also try to fit a recommendation to a particular reader. Still, three books always surface to the top when I am asked this question. 

The first is by Russell Hoban, who is a very interesting writer. The shelf of books he's created ranges from the classic toddler’s picture book Bedtime for Frances to the brilliant speculative fiction Riddley WalkerIn short, Hoban has blessed readers with a stunning variety of imaginative pleasures. But the book of his I treasure most is his 1967 middle-grade novel The Mouse and His Child. The mice in question are toys: “a large one and a small one, who stood upright with outstretched arms and joined hands.” When a key is wound in the father’s back, he dances in a little circle, swinging his child up off the ground and down again. Hoban’s haunting tale details their dangerous, often desperate exploits after they are sold from their happy toyshop home and venture out into a cruel, treacherous world and wend their way, eventually, to a happy ending. For readers both young (say 12 or so) and old, The Mouse and His Child is an eloquent, breathtaking exploration—through the lens of a spellbinding and constantly surprising story—of what it means to be alive on this earth. No kidding. 

Next is Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin: it's one of those rare books that can make one’s daily life more fraught with meaning. An amalgam of philosophy, advice, speculation, aphorism, and anecdote, Grudin’s text is posed in numbered paragraphs, each one self-contained, each turning the idea of time—which comprehends, contradicts, and, as the author shows, can comfort us as well—to a particular angle for examination and reflection. Whether discussing alarm clock time or eternity, a game of Scrabble or letter writing, Romeo and Juliet or an idyllic autumn spent in the Tuscan hills, Grudin has an easy way of exposing kernels of insight. Here's a sample, a passage that has served as a useful guide to me through the years:

“Every time we postpone some necessary event—whether we put off doing the dinner dishes till morning or defer an operation or some difficult labor or study—we do so with the implication that present time is more important than future time (for if we wished the future to be as free and comfortable as we wish the present to be, we would perform necessary actions as soon as they prove themselves necessary). There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we know what we are doing, and as long as the present indeed holds some opportunity more important than the task we delay. But very often our decision to delay is less a free choice than a semiconscious mechanism—a conspiracy between our reasoning awareness and our native dislike of pain. The result of this conspiracy is a disconcerting contradiction of will; for when we delay something, we simultaneously admit its necessity and refuse to do it. Seen more extensively, habitual delay can clutter our lives, leave us in the annoying position of always having to do yesterday’s chores. Disrespect for the future is a subtly poisonous disrespect for self, and forces us, paradoxically enough, to live in the past.”

And, finally, Middlemarch by George Eliot. I first read this when I was a sophomore in college, and I’ve returned to it regularly since, because what struck me as the wisest book I’d ever read at 19 not only remained so when I was 29, 39, 49, and 59, but seemed to increase in wisdom with each decade. At the center of Eliot’s enormous portrait of a provincial city is the story of Dorothea Brooke, a “home epic” of a bright, brave young woman learning how to live and what to live for. While Dorothea is the brightest star in Eliot’s constellation, a compelling array of men and women surround her. Still, the most memorable of Middlemarch’s characters is no character at all, but the imaginative, intuitive, profoundly discerning narrative voice that meditates upon the events and personalities it describes with sympathy and magnanimity. The passions of the plot and reflections on their meaning are delivered together seamlessly, with a blend of philosophy and storytelling few novelists have risked, and fewer still have mastered. Readers are apt to find themselves asking  “What happens next?” and “What shape is my own life taking?” in one and the same breath. If readers find the prospect of traversing a 700+ page novel a bit daunting, I'd recommend they try the excellent audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson. 

2. Was there a book early in your life that cemented your love for the written word? 

The Human Comedy by William Saroyan. I discovered Saroyan when I was about twelve, and I couldn't get enough of his brash writerly energy. I read everything I could of his prodigious output of stories, novels, plays, and autobiography. The urgency of utterance, the liberty of creativity, made Saroyan’s early work crackle like fireworks; sometimes it was breathtaking, sometimes just a fizzling without definition, but it was always colorful, and it made the promise of a writing life seem like a dream one could make come true. There have been periods across the years when I was close enough to realizing it—with a small pile of pages as evidence—that I am glad I chased it, however intermittently. 

3. Did 2020 change your reading at all? Either in what you read or how you read?

The immobility imposed by isolation led me to tackle some big books I’d wanted to read, or re-read. Not having to rush out of the house, I’d sit and devote a good dose of time to them each morning: These Truths by Jill Lepore, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing, and The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a book I’d probably read every page of across the years but that I’d never actually read cover to cover, as I did in 2020. Such immersion in the deep trains of thought followed in these books was very rewarding—it got my mind into shape the way daily workouts might tone the body.

Also, the marvelous books of Robert Macfarlane about landscape, and living in landscape, and finding the words to describe both the landscape and the living in it, were the best company a reader could ask for, Landmarks and The Old Ways especially. I read both of those, and then listened to the audiobooks as I walked through the woods.

4. You seem to read and enjoy just about everything (I can relate). Is there a genre or subject you’re particularly drawn to, though? Some favorite titles within that genre? 

I do enjoy a wide range of genres and subjects, but what I reach for when I am not in the middle of a book that's calling to me, or when I just to want to indulge in the pleasure of reading without any particular objective, are essays, especially essays in which a curiosity is moving through the world dressed in a striking prose style. Some examples I can see on the shelf from where I sit: Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman (which, by the way, is the most recently published book in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die); any collection by William H. Gass or Edmund Wilson or Virginia Woolf; Escape from the Anthill by Hubert Butler, a little-known but large-spirited Irish writer.

Also, I have a soft spot for good writers traveling and describing what they eat en route: The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot; The Surprise of Cremona by Edith Templeton; anything by M. F. K. Fisher.

5. Beyond the general gloom of the last year, we're also in the middle of winter's darkness and blues. Does your reading follow any seasonal pathways? Does the content of your reading change as the pages on the calendar turn?  

Well, as you know from my last newsletter, I've been thinking about snowbound literature recently. It's surprising how comforting—warming to the spirit—reading about arctic and antarctic expeditions can be. Why ice and snow should inspire such extraordinarily good writing I’ve never been able to figure out, but that it has is incontestable. In the pages of 1,000 Books, in fact, you’ll find several marvelous examples: Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, and Beryl Bainbridge’s transporting novel about Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated final expedition, The Birthday Boys

You’ll also find Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez, who died this past Christmas day at the age of 75. Reviewing Lopez’s 1986 book for the New York Times, Edward Abbey called it “jubilant,” and aptly described its author as a man “who can’t wait to get up in the morning. What is prodigious about him is not so much his travels, which are impressive, but how happy he is in the course of them.” And, I would add, how stunningly he wrote about them.

One book in this vein that isn't among my original 1,000, but which has haunted my imagination since I first read it when it was published 25 years ago, is Elizabeth Arthur's novel, Antarctic Navigation, in which a young woman's obsession with Antarctica, and especially with Scott and his fate—is laid out with a sense of scope and ambition rarely seen in contemporary writing. The tale is suffused with the lore of polar exploration and with detailed observations of the Antarctic continent that are unique in fiction (Arthur actually spent some months in Antarctica on a grant from the National Science Foundation). These qualities alone make this novel compelling reading, but it is the way the enormous whole is informed with the knowledge of a life—Arthur’s unabashed attempt to shape all of what she knows into a book that others can share—that makes her achievement truly remarkable.

6. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?

I'm in the middle of Robert Richardson's biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, which is welcoming and rewarding. The generosity of Emerson's spirit, the ingenuity of his search for meaning, and the astonishing eloquence with which he rendered what he discovered combine to make Richardson's narrative the best kind of education. I'm excited to pick it up each day. 

I am also being charmed by Eley Willams's new novel about lexicography, The Liar's Dictionary, which my daughter gave to me for my birthday. 

Next up: who knows? But, being an inveterate browser, something is bound to turn up any minute. 

Thanks for the time and inbox space, as always. I’d love to hear what you’re reading, too! If you enjoy the newsletter, I hope you’ll consider subscribing as a premium member:

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Have a great weekend everyone!