The French poet Charles Baudelaire described a book as “a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party… a multitude of counselors”. I have had a love of books since I was a child. It is a place I go to every day for wisdom and insight about the condition of man in the past, now and the future. A book can also be a place for escapism that is richer than the most lavish of big budget blockbuster movies. Moreover, the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience is presenting compelling research that often the solution we are looking for arrives when our mind is ‘distracted’ in an unrelated activity such as a walk in nature, a bike ride, baking a cake or reading a book. Research also shows that reading expands our capacity for empathy.
So it saddens me when I travel on public transport and see most people absorbed by their phone screens and mindlessly scrolling or swiping, not only oblivious to the world around them but the treasures that reside in books. Many of the world’s most notable and successful business leaders are avid readers. For example, Bill Gates publishes his reading list every year to an audience of millions. His book list covers a vast range of topics – from a novel set in Vietnam, Eddie Izzard’s autobiography to an exploration of poverty in inner city America.
The books in my list below have been an inspiration to me over the past twelve months. With the festive season fast approaching you may consider one of these books for your briefcase or bedside table, as well as a gift for a colleague, friend or family member.
Cure – A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body
Jo Marchant is an award winning science journalist with a Phd in genetics and medical microbiology from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. Her book is an intelligent and open-minded tour of the latest mind body research. She explores the evidence about how placebos affect the immune system. “It isn’t trickery, wishful thinking or all in the mind. It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug,” she writes. When we swallow a pill, we are swallowing an idea, the idea that we will feel better – this belief alone will be enough to trigger the release of the body’s natural endorphins or dopamine, or whatever other chemical our body was expecting to make or consume if we’d actually taken the drug. On her journey she goes to Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester to meet consultant gastroenterologist Peter Whorwell, a world expert in irritable bowel syndrome. His research into the use of hypnosis in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome shows that it helps 70 to 80% of patients for whom all other treatments have failed. As a scientist Marchant is not averse to calling out quackery, but is equally vocal about Western medicine downplaying the effect of the mind on the body. The book is highly readable and races along like a gripping novel.
Silence – In The Age of Noise
I discovered this book during one of my favourite pastimes – being in a bricks and mortar bookshop and letting serendipity lead me to a book I may never have come across if I had left it to the algorithms of online shops. Erling Kagge was the first person to reach the “three poles” on foot: the North Pole, the South Pole and the peak of Mount Everest. On the opening page he tells the story of trying to convince his three teenage daughters that “the world’s secrets are hidden inside silence”. His daughters greet this fatherly advice with scepticism, relying on their smartphones to reveal any secrets worth knowing. He observes that his children hardly pause any more, that they are always accessible and they tend to sit in front of a screen – whether alone or together. Refreshingly, he admits that he does it too. All of us are distracted to one degree or another – “Everyone is the other, and no one is himself,” wrote the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. We scroll and swipe mindlessly as we walk, sit on the bus and even at the dinner table in the presence of our loved ones.
“If your partner doesn’t understand you when you are silent…mightn’t it be harder for them to understand you when you are speaking”
In this book he outlines his “extreme journeys to the ends of the earth” to illustrate the restorative impact of withdrawing from the human cacophony. “Nature spoke to me in the guise of silence,” he recounts of his 50-day trek in Antarctica. “The quieter I became, the more I heard” he writes and tells of the difficulty of speaking when he encounters the first human being after 50 days of silence. One of the most disturbing stories he tells is of a psychology experiment at the University of Virginia where participants chose to suffer an electric shock rather than sit alone in a room with no entertainment except their thoughts. He doesn’t advocate that we all don snowshoes and head for Antarctica, but asks us to consider bringing the restorative power of silence into our life on a daily basis.
Oliver Sacks started writing this series of uplifting and beautiful essays when he learned the inevitability of his death from cancer. He distils the essence of his life into just four short sentences –
“ My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
In these essays, he speaks of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and his sexuality. He writes of his mother’s hostile reaction to his homosexuality when he was eighteen years old, which led to his break from formal religion and from the leafy streets of Hampstead where he felt he could not live openly. Remarkably he ended up at Muscle Beach in Venice, California and went on to hold the record for a 600lb squat lift! However, it was not until he was 75 that he found love and contentment with writer and photographer Bill Hayes. A very moving book that will uplift your soul and direct you to a place of gratitude in your life.