Books I read in the past year, ranked

I’m not even aiming for objectivity. I mostly ranked these books in terms of their influence on me.

    1. Sapiens — 2014. Yuval Noah Harari dissects human history through a revolutionary new lense, weaving anthropology, economics, psychology, and biology into the story of our species.

    2. Homo Deus — 2015. Harari lays out a sobering roadmap for humanity. He envisions a world where a select group of elites upgrade their minds and bodies. Human concede every last shred of privacy and identity. AI eliminate the need for humans altogether. Homo Deus is pessimistic–but his next book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century promises hopeful solutions.

    3. Into the Wild — 1996. Jon Krakauer. I draw immense inspiration from Chris McCandless. I admire his stubborn commitment to his ideals and his search for self-knowledge through isolation. Krakauer is also one of my favorite authors; his style is clean, objective, and charged.

    4. Freakonomics — 2005. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. As a numbers person, and I enjoy distilling day-to-day life down to statistics. Levitt has made a career, a book, and an academic field out of it.

    5. Kafka on the Shore — 2005. Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece. This novel is a journey through our own subconscious minds. I remember events of the book as one remembers scenes from a vivid dream.

    6. The God Delusion — 2006. Richard Dawkins. I grew up an atheist, but in the months before reading this book I was exploring different spiritual religions. The God Delusion set me back on my natural track of steadfast skepticism. Dawkins witty style and unapologetic arguments will persuade any fence-sitter.

    7. The Handmaid’s Tale — 1985. Margaret Atwood. I love the way Atwood discusses language. She provides backstories for words, as if they were characters. I remember a particular moment when the protagonist said, “I feel like the word shatter.”

    8. Sign Preceding the End of the World — 2015. Yuri Herrera. Trans. Lisa Dillman. The English translation of this contemporary Mexican novel is shocking and powerful. The protagonist is a messenger between drug cartels, crossing the border between the US and Mexico, English and Spanish, hope and desperation, life and death. It sheds a light on the often-unseen complexities of immigration and language.

    9. Franny and Zooey — 1961. J.D. Salinger. My summer roommate was in love with Salinger. In an attempt to get to know her better, I checked this book out from the library and read it in three days. I think this book is Salinger’s self-portrait, and he’s laughing at himself. That makes it all the more genius.

    10. Between the World and Me — 2015. Ta Nehisi Coates shares his brutally honest perspective on race in America. Formatted as a letter to his son, Coates delves into police brutality, the insecurity of his black body, and his mixed feelings towards raising a child in this country.

    11. The Age of Sustainable Development — 2015. Jeffrey Sachs is the special adviser to the UN Secretary General and helped devise the Sustainable Development Goals. His book discusses the problems facing human, environmental, and economic health, their causes, and their solutions. It is a pragmatic, well-written, readable manual on saving the planet.

    12. Open Veins of Latin America — 1971. Eduardo Galeano. This book opened my eyes to the tragedies of Latin America’s past. European colonialism, centuries of enslavement, covert CIA missions and the installation of dictators and puppets, manipulative “free trade” agreements, all bind Latin America to poverty. I went on a two week rampage of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist fervor (my heated passion remains to this day, without the Commie rhetoric).

    13. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running — 2007. Haruki Murakami. Never have I connected so deeply with an author. Murakami discusses writing and running as symbiotic: two components of a happy, creative, prolific life.

    14. Metamorphosis — 1915. Franz Kafka. A hilarious, thought-provoking, twisted classic. It helped me understand Murakami much better.

    15. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime — 2003. Mark Haddon. A rare, intimate look into the mind of a mathematically brilliant, autistic child. This novel made me laugh and cry.

    16. Buddhism for Beginners — 2001. Thubten Chodron. I bought this book at the local hippie shop. It was exactly what I was seeking: a concise guide to the philosophy and teaching of Buddhism. It inspired a daily meditation practice and several months of Buddhist curiosity. But that ended with Richard Dawkins.

    17. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — 1995. Haruki Murakami. The first Murakami I ever read (my gateway drug). I fell in love with each outlandish metaphor, entangled storyline, and twisted character. I place this book in the middle of his development as a novelist.

    18. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth — 2013. Chris Hadfield. There are few people on Earth (or, shall I say, beyond it) more qualified to give advice about life than Hadfield. A cosmonaut, engineer, husband, father, writer, and photographer, his story is astronomically inspiring.

    19. The Undercover Economist — 2005. Tim Harford. An unashamed capitalist preacher, Harford makes a solid case for himself. He discusses environmentalism, health care, coffee, and human behavior in ways I had never considered.

    20. A Wild Sheep Chase — 1982. Haruki Murakami. It is fascinating to compare his earlier works to his newer ones. This book is far more light-hearted and funny than his more “serious” contemporary novels, but his dream-like whimsy is as present as ever.

    21. Hurry Up and Meditate — 2008. David Michie offers some invaluable practical advice on how to meditate well and regularly. I’d reread it, but I leant it to a tree-hugging friend who never gave it back.

    22. The Runaway Species — 2017. David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt use dozens of historical anecdotes to illustrate how our brains create original ideas. Though it was well-written and the examples were interesting, this book talked less about biology and psychology than I hoped it might.

    23. My Neighbor’s Faith  2012. Assorted Essays. Someone I deeply respect recommended me this book. I devoured it in a desire to get to know him better. The book itself was, meh. I’m not religious.


Working on a farm

This summer I am working on a farm. I lead tractor tours around our 30 sun-drenched acres. My job involves eating raw corn, demonstrating how to pick strawberries, speaking some Chinese and Spanish here and there, and telling stories about vegetable history.

When I get hungry, I simply pick more strawberries. When I get tired, I go inside and hand out samples at the market stand. When I have to go to the bathroom, there’s a port-a-potty out back. When I need a moment to breathe, I inhale the rich musk of the earth.

Though I’m not quite a farmhand, I like to play the part. I wear a big straw hat and corduroy jeans, and invite guests to call me Farmer Chuck. When I get off work, I drive down Pacific Coast Highway to the sound of Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor, and Dolly Parton.

I relish the question, “Oh, where do you work?”



First steps

My first steps towards any goal are physical steps. My ideas spring from the impact of running shoes on packed dirt. My brain is like wet cement, and my ideas are inlaid bricks. Running dries the cement and sets my ideas in place, so that they might form structures.

Whenever a big essay deadline approaches, I “run on it.” I set out with no music and no phone–just the simple intention of  brainstorming an idea. Not that every run is a well-spring of inspiration. I rarely devise fully-formed plans and paragraphs as I run. I merely seek to create a blank headspace. In this vacuum, creative sparks might flash.

The first steps of my creative process are therefore simple. I require no post-it notes, graphic organizers, Excel sheets, nor Starbucks espressos. I need a good pair of running shoes (I swear by Hoka’s) and a trail.