Reading List 2011 (6/40)

Ah, glorious books!

  • The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills
  • Warbreaker, Brandon Sanderson
  • Project Happily Ever After, Alisa Bowman
  • Equally Shared Parenting, Marc & Amy Vachon
  • Switch, Chip Heath
  • Poke the Box, Seth Godin

I would just like to say that I only bought Poke the Box because I thought Godin’s new publishing venture was interesting. I paid the pre-order price of $1 and still feel ripped off, because this so-called book is a half-baked, insulting piece of crap. I felt like I was reading drafts of blog posts, thrown together into a single volume with no concern for structure or argument. His central point is an excellent one: “You don’t need permission, just do cool things!” Got it? Now take the money you’d have spent on this shoddy product and buy yourself some candy.

(That said, the Poke the Box workbook actually has better content, plus a whole bunch of useful exercises. It’s free, but I would have paid $1 for it and not felt annoyed.)

I was also frustrated by Bowman’s Project Happily Ever After, but not because it was a bad book. It’s actually a surprisingly good book! Bowman is a solid writer with a good eye for detail and a compelling story about how she saved her marriage. What I found infuriating was watching her and her husband make repeatedly awful relationship choices, leading to a marriage where he exploits her labor and ignores her needs, and she plays the martyr / supermom / angel of the house.  She’s unwilling to ask for what she wants; he’s unwilling to contribute as an equal partner. Honestly, they both need a good swift kick in the genitalia. Fortunately, they get one. After realizing she’d been fantasizing about death and divorce, Bowman sets out on a four-month project to fix what’s wrong in their relationship and their lives. I was periodically frustrated by the assumption that it’s Bowman’s job to do all the relationship work – but I simultaneously admired her “someone’s gotta step up” attitude, and I admit I just couldn’t wait to find out what happened to them next. Their relationship doesn’t quite end up as equal – even toward the end of the book, Bowman’s husband seems perpetually surprised at just how much work goes into running a household and raising a child – but it seems much more so, and most importantly they both seem happy. At least for purposes of book sales.

I then immediately had to read Equally Shared Parenting, which is about how two partners can build a life in which they both have equal commitments to their personal lives, their work, the household, and parenting. Even though we don’t have kids right now, my husband bought it for me as a sign of his commitment to being my equal partner. We’re working through some of the exercises together, and they’re very helpful. Evidently the Vachons also run a website, around which I intend to poke. I suspect that, like the book, it’s useful for staying committed to a truly equal partnership whether or not parenting is involved.

Warbreaker is a stand-alone fantasy from the reliably excellent Sanderson … except he made some seriously weird world-building choices that I had a hard time getting past. His magic system is based on using breath (the spark of life) and color to animate organic material. Okay, neat, except his characters walk around talking about Breath and Color and (worst of all!) BioChroma, which I found rather Graceless and Jarring and Heavy-Handed. If you can get past that nagging irritation, the story really is quite cool. Two sisters – one cool and responsible, one wayward and stubborn – end up swapping roles in order to save their kingdom from being swallowed up by a powerful neighboring empire. In the meantime a god tries to figure out why he’s been reincarnated, and eventually finds his life’s purpose. I particularly enjoyed the palace politics, but I think all the storylines have some great material, and they come together with satisfying explosiveness at the end.

Finally, I must talk about the two books I read that have already changed my life.

Switch is a hands-on, how-to book about behavior change. It’s written in a very “pop” style, including a book-length metaphor about a guy riding an elephant down a jungle path.  If I hadn’t read (and loved!) Heath’s previous work, I’d never have picked it up. But Heath does exactly what he says he’ll do: make the literature on behavior change accessible to the casual reader, with great examples and memorable principles. I’m quite familiar with the psychological research on behavior change, but I wanted to see if Heath’s structure would help me apply the lessons of behavior change to my own life. The answer is a resounding yes. I challenged myself to eat more healthfully, and I found super-helpful guidance in each of his three major sections. I made some smart cognitive decisions (defining a specific task, namely eating five fruits and vegetables every day), some smart emotional decisions (committing to do it for just one week at first, until I realized just how much energy it was giving me), and some smart logistical decisions (lowering the bar by keeping a bowl of fruit on my desk, not just at home). I’m going to keep this book at my fingertips the next time I want to make a life change – now I just have to figure out what to tackle next!

The Sociological Imagination is the funniest book you’ve ever read about the history of sociology. It’s also a call for social scientists to do their best, fullest, most serious work, and not fall into the traps of either academic formalism or bureaucratic methodology. I read the whole thing over the course of ten days or so, but if you’re less stubborn than I am, you might just want to read the last few chapters. The last full chapter is about how all researchers work from positions of value, and that there is no such thing as value-neutral research. The epilogue is about how Mills himself conducted his research, and what lessons he draws from it for others. Mills’ commitment to both the craft of writing and the craft of research is incredibly inspiring. I hope that someday I will write a book half this eye-opening, meaningful and funny. Until then, I’ll be recommending this to any aspiring game researchers I encounter. Yes, that includes you.

Shabbat shalom, everyone!

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