What to Read Next (No. 126): a lighthouse keeper + some questions with Laura Vanderkam

The internet is a wild place to be these days. After sending out last week’s newsletter, I got a couple angry emails and by far the most unsubscribes I’ve had in a single week. Fine by me; when you’ve worked on the internet for as long as I have, you get used to it.

I only even mention it to say one thing: books are the least confrontational way to encounter new ideas that you’re uncomfortable with or even downright aggressive towards. Books won’t argue back (at least not verbally). You can read new viewpoints and chew on them, sit with them, let them move you (or not) more slowly than you’d be allowed in a social media argument. If you feel threatened by a book, all the better! Read it anyway. See what happens. It’s a no-risk situation.

Anyways, this week I had the chance to talk with Laura Vanderkam about some of her favorite books. I also managed to put down some thoughts on a book that I don’t yet have a firm opinion on.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman (2012, 343 pages)

“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things. . . . We always have a choice.” 

This is one of those novels where I came away from it without fulling knowing whether I liked it or not, or if I’d recommend it. The writing itself, for the most part, is beautiful. But the story is definitely one that not everyone will be game for.

Tom is a WWI veteran and lighthouse keeper on Australia’s far western edge. Though he was spared physical wounds, the psychological scars of battle run deep. In spite of that, he finds and weds the lovely young Isabel and they embark on a life together on a small rock in the ocean. Isabel wants to fill that rock with children, but as countless women have experienced from time immemorial, our plans don’t always work out. After two miscarriages and one stillbirth, she’s ready to give up on life.

But then, just two weeks after putting that lifeless baby in the ground, the light-keepers get a miracle on their shores. A small boat washes up with two surprises in it: one lifeless man and one two-month-old little girl who, after some cleaning up, appears unharmed.

Tom is duty-bound to report the incident; nothing happens at a lighthouse without an exacting record. But Isabel — heartbroken, defeated Isabel — has a different idea.

Stedman’s writing probes deep into the soul. What lengths will we go to for the people we love? How long can we carry on when we’re fueled by desperation? What’s the right decision when there isn’t a clear right or wrong? And what about when that choice becomes more clear later on? How can a child have such sway over our happiness and fulfillment?

There’s plenty of heartbreak, to be sure, but beyond that there’s also a lot of uncomfortable moral tension. I read The Light Between the Oceans very quickly, and I enjoyed the character-building and stirring descriptions of life on a lonely ocean outpost. As I said up top, I just am not fully sure what I thought of the story. Part of me loved it; part of me wishes it went in a couple different directions. (Which is also how I felt about Idaho.) If you have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

A Few Bookish Questions With Laura Vanderkam

I first encountered Laura’s work when I was doing research for an article I wrote on time tracking. Her book 168 Hours is one of the most memorable self-improvement and productivity books I’ve ever read. I guarantee that if you’re bold enough to read it, you’ll come away realizing you have more time on your hands than you think. Trust me.

She also wrote the phenomenal Off the Clock, for which we had her on the Art of Manliness podcast to talk about. And her next book, The New Corner Office, drops in just over a month. Laura is just great and took the time to answer a few questions for me.

1. Your work centers on time management, productivity, work/life balance, etc. What books have most influenced your thinking when it comes to these topics?

I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, a great many years ago. While some parts seem a bit aged (I keep wondering what was “urgent but not important” before people had emails and texts…were we reading our faxes really closely?), much is still good advice. I started thinking about my life and planning my life in weeks after reading Covey’s book and that mindset helped me shape the material that became 168 Hours, my first time management book. “Begin with the end in mind” is really the key to spending time more mindfully. Otherwise, the hours just pass through our fingers. 

2. It seems that you read across a variety of subjects and genres. Do you have a favorite subject or genre you gravitate towards and can't keep yourself away from? What are some favorite books in that category? 

I always love a good humor book. I’ve read all of Dave Barry’s books, and I just enjoyed Jim Gaffigan’s book, Dad is Fat — probably because he also had five young kids at the time he wrote it. I definitely appreciate when other genres of books keep a humorous touch too. Jen Hatmaker’s book, Of Mess and Moxie, would probably be shelved as Christian inspiration, but features a discussion of what to do when your toddler son pees in inappropriate public places. I have four boys. I’ve been there! 

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

I just read Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. I like quiet novels, with some warmth. Ideally I learn something too, and I have a secret passion for botany, so except for a weirdly tacked on love plot (I blame the publishing industry; can heroines not be happily single?) Kane’s book delivered on all fronts. 

I’m pondering tackling Anna Karenina this summer. I read it 20 years ago, but I’ve had a lot of people tell me you appreciate it on a different level in mid-life. 

4. What books do you find yourself recommending over and over, gifting a lot, and/or generally just talking a lot about? 

I frequently recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Yes, it’s grammar and writing rules but it’s zippy, funny, and the world would be better if everyone would “omit needless words.”

That’s all for me this week. Thanks for the time and inbox space; I really appreciate it.