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My Book of Books

"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"

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Biographies

“The Art of Learning” Josh Waitzkin

This one’s for you if… you’re interested in pursuing excellence in any field.

What is this book about?

Its about the difficulties of being successful at the same time as growing up. Its about how to learn. Its about how to apply what you learn from one field in another. Its about embracing failure and challenging yourself. Its about working with different people at different stages of development. Its about how we praise children and what effect that has. It is about how different aspects of our lives can all come together in one moment. It describes the intensity of emotions felt during the pursuit of excellence better than any book on sport or psychology or performance that I have come across.

Waitzkin transitioned from being  the world’s greatest chess player to winning the world push hands championships- a competitive martial art form. His book weaves these two journeys together through his humble approach to continuous improvement, embracing strengths and addressing weaknesses.

 

These two videos from the push hands championships can only be appreciated after reading Josh’s detailed and gripping account of them in the book. They demonstrate the magic of sport: its David vs Goliath battles, the unpredictability of the outcome and the sheer strength in body and mind of athletes.

“Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever-deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at the chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and also spiritually cleansing. It centred me. Chess was my friend.” xii

“Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle. We are too smart for ourselves in such moments. We sense our mortality like a cancer beneath the bravado, and when things start to go out of control, there is little real resilience to fall back on.” p17

“Very smart kids with entity theories tend to be far more brittle when challenged than kids with learning theories who would be considered not quite as sharp.” p31

“If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built in armour must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can spring from. Someone struck with an entity theory of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell.” p33

“When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away even as we inhale.” p46

When your position in competition changes “Your heart starts to pound because of the disconcerting chasm between what was and what is.” p62

“I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative laps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love of discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off- no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating.” p79

“To my mind, the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of greyness- of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if stretched too thin, they will snap. A competitor needs to be process-oriented, always looking for stronger opponents to spur growth, but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence. We have to release our current ideas to soak in new material, but no so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents. Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.” p88 Tao Te Ching

“It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.” p123

“The key to this process [seeing more with less] is understanding that the conscious mind, for all its magnitude, can only take in and work with a certain limited amount of information in a unit of time- envision that capacity as one page on your computer screen. If it is presented with a large amount of information, then the font will have to be very small in order to fit it all on one page. You will not be able to see the details of the letters.” p146

The approach of meditative practice is based on “breaking down the artificial barriers between our diverse life experiences so all moments become enriched by a sense of interconnectedness.” p183

“The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.” p187

“In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.” p262

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“The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism” Naoki Higashida

This one is for you if… you have always wanted to ask somebody with autism questions about how they feel and why they behave as they do.

The book was written when Naoki was 13, after he learnt to spell out words with an alphabet grid. It was translated by David Mitchell and his wife who have a son who has autism and the introduction is a touching insight into what the book meant to him, and how much it helped him after his son’s diagnosis, in stark contrast to other books on the topic.

Naoki writes in such a way as to clearly explain his thoughts and feelings. One of my favourite things about this book is his suggestions of what we can do to ease the challenges of those with autism, based on his own experiences. By the end of the book you come to realise that people with autism are not so different to the rest of us, and that just a little bit of effort here and there would make life a lot easier for those affected. I’m already looking forward to reading Naoki’s follow up book, about navigating teenage life with autism. (Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8).

It was interesting to read the book at the same time as watching the BBC drama “The A Word” which shed light on the family dynamics around a child with autism- they certainly struggle to follow Naoki’s advice not to stress themselves out.

Thought experiment into autistic life “your mind is in a room where twenty radios, all tuned to different stations, are blaring out voices and music. The radios have no off-switches or volume controls, the room you’re in has no door or windows, and relief will come only when you’re too exhausted to stay awake.” p2

“people with autism must survive in an outside world where meltdowns and panic attacks are viewed as tantrums, where disability allowance claimants are assumed by many to be welfare scroungers and where British foreign policy can be described as ‘autistic’ by a French minister.’ p4

“When you know that your kid wants to speak with you, when you know that he’s taking in his surroundings every bit as attentively as you non-autistic daughter, whatever the evidence to the contrary, then you can be ten times more patient, willing, understanding and communicative, and ten times better able to understand his development.” p10

“Unlike the words we’re ordered to say, repeating questions we already know the answers to can be a pleasure- it’s playing with sound and rhythm.” p24

“True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect. That’s what I think, anyway.” p30

“we really badly want you to understand what’s going on inside our hearts and minds. And basically, my feelings are pretty much the same as yours.” p38

“A person who’s looking at a mountain far away doesn’t notice the prettiness of a dandelion in front of them. A person who’s looking at a dandelion in front of them doesn’t see the beauty of a mountain far away. To us, people’s voices are a bit like that. It’s very difficult for us to know someone’s there and that they’re talking to us, just by his or her voice.
So it would help us a great deal if you could just use our names first to get our attention, before you then start talking to us.” p52

Asked what the worst thing about autism is “I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have- and that saps the spirit we need to soldier on…the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.” p71

Why do people with autism need cues and prompts? “In the same way as you don’t walk over the crossing until the light turns green, I can’t ‘switch on’ the next action until my brain receives the right prompt. Doing the next action without obeying ‘the prompt rule’ is terrifying. It’s enough to make me lose the plot completely.” p143

“Please keep battling alongside us. We are the ones who are suffering the most in these scenes, and badly badly want to free ourselves from our own chains.” p143

“A Woman’s Work” Harriet Harman

This one’s for you if… you’re interested in the views of the longest serving female MP on women’s rights and life in politics as a woman.

Women’s rights is a challenging problem to solve. Before reading this book the question I kept coming back to was what do we mean by equal rights? Women and men are inescapably different. Only women can carry and give birth to children. So what do we want our utopian world to look like? Can equality realistically mean that having children has NO negative affect on your career? And is that fair? Having children will inevitably involve time off work, so for me I felt that “equality” was the opportunity to progress in your career at the same rate as men, using number of days worked as the measurement.

Obviously we are currently a long way off any utopian view of women’s rights, whatever that may look like. Until we can get away from the female/male stereotypes that were shown by the BBC programme “No More Boys and Girls” to be so deeply ingrained by primary school age, women will always be expected to do more at home, be more responsible for childcare and be less likely to have the higher earning job and therefore more likely to give it up when children come along.

However, Harriet Harman thoroughly educated me on policies, their potentially positive effect on the economy, and addressing the imbalance where having children does so much more to halt the progress of mothers’ career’s compared to fathers’. Ideas such as compulsorily sharing of parental leave so that the “hit” on female work is less skewed. Making childcare provision more affordable so that women’s jobs do more than just breaking even. The point is that should a woman wish to work, society should be able to provide the training and childcare support required to enable that to happen. Many of these ideas rely heavily on state supply of these services, which is a debate for another day on how much we should and can expect of the state in terms of what support it can provide us with.

I recognise the progress that needs to be made on women’s rights and don’t for a second think that we should rest up on pushing for that progress. But as an optimist, I also like to reflect on how much progress we have made. Harriet Harman reminds us of the restrictions on women as she grew up and when she entered politics. It really is incredible to see how much progress has been made, and how much she has contributed to this.

In addition to the history of the women’s movement, this book is a fascinating account of life in politics as a woman. There are multiple examples of how unaccessible parliament was for women when Harriet Harman was first elected in 1982, demonstrating how male dominated systems must change in order for them to be accessible to women. The long boozy lunches and the late night votes didn’t exactly lend themselves to the ability to balance your responsibilities at home with your children. Harman also demonstrates how stereotypically female personality traits do not help in your progression towards seniority in politics. On multiple occasions she discusses how she put the party before her own interests and in so doing put up with treatment than many of her males colleagues would not. Inevitably every team needs a balance of skills and characteristics to achieve its potential. At some point in the future, I am sure we will have as many caring and sensitive men as women, and as many ballsy, ambitious women as men. In the meantime, balancing these characteristics remains another argument for increasing female representation in senior roles in all industries.

If you were recruiting for the people who were to run the country you might put qualities such as good communication, strong leadership and an ability to manage people in the advertisement. Naively or not, I was appalled at several of the examples of what goes on behind the closed doors of Parliament, demonstrating immaturity, betrayal, and petty power plays (see below).

To finish on a positive note, I have nothing but huge admiration and respect for what Harriet Harman has achieved so far in her time in politics and for the circumstances in which she has managed that. A fantastic role model for young women and men alike.

 

There was a time when “You can’t expect the same pay as a man, you can’t expect to be treated equally at work, you can’t expect men to play their part at home, you can’t object if your husband beats you, you can’t expect to be valued if you’re not young and pretty, you can’t expect to be taken seriously intellectually if you are…we were not going to put up with it.” p24

“A lone woman would be refused service at a hotel bar on the assumption that, if she was on her own, she could be there only in order to pick up a man- so she must be a prostitute.” p29

“The Parliament I entered in 1982, 97 per cent of whose members were men, was reported on by a press lobby of whom 95 per cent were men. They were not in the least interested in the women’s agenda.” p80

“men still outnumber women in the lobby by three to one. It’s wrong that the largely male world of Parliament is still reported to the men and women of this country through predominantly male eyes.” p84

Clare Short criticised Alan Clark for being drunk in the House but “it was she was reprimanded, for breaking the rule that it’s unparliamentary for an MP to allege that another is drunk.” p116

UNBELIEVABLE account from when Harman was on the front bench. She promised her children she would take them to the cinema on half term. She was phoned by whips and after missing several calls told them “I was not available”. It was assumed she was having an affair. “Firstly while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.” p121

Combining economic policy with women’s rights. “If mothers with young children could get the childcare and training they needed, they would be able to get back to work. Instead of claiming benefits, they would be paying taxes and in a position to se up businesses which would help the economy to grow. With mothers working, there’d be fewer children in poverty.” p149

“while I was sitting on the platform waiting to speak, Gordon had gone through it and typed in alterations. Gordon’s authority was such that there was no way special advisors, even two of them, could hold out against him.” p184 Why the need to go behind her back about her speech to the conference? Why not have open discussions and or say as leader I disagree and feel it would be better for the party for you to say x not y?

“Having previously had two members of staff in my constituency office and two political advisers, I hadn’t a clue how to lead a department of 93,000 people…With the change in my relationships with my colleagues and the complete absence of any ‘headspace’ in which to think about things uninterrupted, I lost my bearings.” p196

In the case of a women given 2 black eyes, 2 broken ribs and a punctured lung by an abusive husband, who was a Dr. “it was a travesty to minimise the violence this woman had suffered because her husband was outwardly jovial and well liked at work. The fact that he was a role model to younger professional colleagues made his behaviour worse, not better. And however welcome his appearances as Father Christmas, they were irrelevant and shouldn’t be a reason to to keep him from serving a custodial sentence.” p243 This reminds me of the recent and extraordinary case of the Stanford swimmer whose sporting prowess- which is in no way relevant to whether or not he committed a serious crime- was considered during his sentencing.

When she won the Deputy Leadership election she turned to John Prescott and said “I’ll need all you advice and support. I hope you’ll help me? ‘No’, he replied. “I won’t”. He had never liked or approved of me, but I was taken aback that he would put personal antagonism above the interests of helping his successor do a good job.” p271

“Prime Minister’s Questions is not just about your government’s policies, it’s about your performance as well. PMQs is like taking an exam, in public, where the syllabus is the whole world.” p284

“While we reshape our future, we must be careful not to misrepresent our past. We fought to get into government so that we could work on the problems caused by the Tories. Labour tackled pensioner and child poverty, modernised the health service and schools…Denigrating our past denies those achievements, strengthens the position of our opposition and pushed further into the future the day when Labour gets into office again.” p329

When she is on school visits “Most of the young women and men have been brought up in households where the mother takes the main responsibility for children, so, while the girls aspire to go further than previous generations of women have been able to in their work and therefore share domestic responsibilities, the boys see a model of home life with them as the main breadwinner and head of the household.” p367

“In Order to Live” Yeonmi Park

This one’s for you if you’re interested in what life is really like in modern day North Korea.

Shocking. The word I would use to describe this book. Shocking on a whole new scale. In many ways, this book reminded me of reading about Mao’s reign over China in Wild Swans. But the author of this book was born in 1993, the same year as me. To think that the experiences she describes are happening to people now, is truly horrific. The poverty in North Korea, the human trafficking in China once they cross the border, the journey to South Korea via Mongolia, and the enormous culture shock of arriving in South Korea, all accompanied by a perennial fear that is difficult to imagine. The saddest thing of all is when you try to think of a way out of the terrible situation that faces North Koreans. The fear of nuclear war will surely cripple any meaningful action by western governments. And the chances of change from within are equally crippled by the culture of citizens monitoring each other and living in fear of the authorities.

“We all belonged to inminbam, or neighbourhood “people’s units”, and we were ordered to inform on anyone who said the wrong thing. We lived in fear, and almost everyone- my mother included- had a personal experience that demonstrated the dangers of talking.” p16

“In most countries, a mother encourages her children to ask about everything, but not in North Korea…”even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.” She didn’t mean to scare me, but I felt a deep darkness and horror inside me.” p19

“Everything about you is recorded and stored in local administrative offices and in big national organizations, and the information is used to determine where you can live, where you can go to school, and where you can work.” p26 This explains how the actions of the inminbam contribute to your position in society, or “songbun” status.

“Instead of scary fairy tales, we had stories set in a filthy and disgusting place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets.” p46 Government propaganda extended not just to children’s stories but to their schoolwork as well- using derogative terms to describe Americans in maths problems.

“Just about every morning we woke up to the sound of the national anthem blaring on the government supplied radio. Every household in North Korea had to have one, and you could never turn it off. It was tuned to only one station, and that’s how the government could control you even when you were in your own home.” p66 This meant that people woke up and ate lunch at times set by the state.

After having an operation, “Because we had no money to bribe them, the nurses ignored me. My mother had to do everything from keeping my incision clean to giving me whatever food she could find.” p112

“The Chinese government doesn’t want a flood of immigrants, nor does it want to upset the leadership in Pyongyang. Not only is North Korea a trading partner, but it’s a nuclear power perched right on its border, and an important buffer between China and the American presence in the South.” p131 Therefore North Koreans were at huge risk of being sent back to North Korea by the Chinese authorities.

“The material things were worthless. I had lost my family. I wasn’t loved, I wasn’t free, and I wasn’t safe. I was alive, but everything that made life worth living was gone.” p142 In China, Yeonmi agreed to live with the person who had trafficked her and her mother in return for him buying her mother back so that they could be reunited.

“If the Chinese government would end its heartless policy of sending refugees back to North Korea, then the brokers would lose all of their power to exploit and enslave these women. But of course if North Korea wasn’t such a hell on Earth, there wouldn’t be a need for the women to flee in the first place.” p154/5

Reflecting on her time in China: “For nearly two years, I’d felt like all five of my senses were numbed. I could not feel, smell, see, hear, or taste the world around me. If I had allowed myself to experience these things in all their intensity, I might have lost my mind…So I survived, but I never felt joy, never felt safe. Now, as I listened to my mother sing the old songs, the numbness melted away.” p186

While crossing from China into Mongolia “I also started hating the dictator Kim Jong Il that night. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but now I blamed him for our suffering. I finally allowed myself to think bad thoughts about him because even if he could read my mind, I was probably going to die out here anyway…even in the face of death, betraying the Dear Leader was probably the hardest thing I had ever done.” p196

On reaching South Korea “I felt the shame of the survivor who lives while so many friend and family members have died or are are trapped in a living hell.” p206

Park’s interrogation agent in South Korea, interviewing her about her past, scoffs at the idea of her attending university but admits that everyone deserves second chance. “A second chance is what criminals get. I knew I wasn’t a criminal; I did what I had to do to survive and save my family.” p211 This also reminded me of the rhetoric that some people are using when discussing the current European refugee crisis.

“if everything I had been taught was a lie, how could I know these people weren’t lying, too? It was impossible to trust anyone in authority.” p215 Just one of the long lasting effects of having lived under such a dictatorship.

When asked during her 3 months at a resettlement center what her hobbies were, Park thought “I had no idea what a “hobby” was. When it was explained to me that it was something I did that made me happy, I couldn’t conceive of such a thing . My only goal was supposed to be making the regime happy.” p216

 

“Do No Harm” Henry Marsh

This one is for you if you’re interested in the life of a brain surgeon that is happy to discuss his mistakes and criticise the NHS.

As patients, we tend to put our doctor(s) on a pedestal. Maybe it’s because we want to believe they are going to solve our problems, regardless of whether they can. Maybe it’s because so many patients can’t imagine the responsibility of being a doctor, so think that they must be ‘super human’ in some way. Whatever the reason, we often don’t want to hear about things going wrong. And we are quick to criticise when they do, even if we have been warned multiple times of the risks involved in a certain procedure. One of the things I loved most about this book was that Marsh was so comfortable with appearing human. Mistakes are made by people all the time. Some are big, some are small. Some have drastic consequences, others go unnoticed. But while we can easily recognise that mistakes are a part of our imperfect human nature, we don’t often extend this hand of understanding to medical professionals. Having retired in 2015, Marsh has a wealth of experience of working in the NHS which allows him to take you step by step through the introduction of increasing bureaucracy and government targets that have sadly become so dominant today. And for those that love a bit of gore, there are some fantastic descriptions of surgery itself in this delightfully short and easy to read book.

“The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.” p1

“She would be added to the list of my disasters- another headstone in that cemetery  which the French surgeon Leriche once said all surgeons carry within themselves.” p5

“‘Informed consent’ sounds so easy in principle- the surgeon explains the balance of risks and benefits, and the calm and rational patient decides what he or she wants- just like going to the supermarket and choosing from the vast array of toothbrushes on offer.” p36

“As patients we are deeply reluctant to offend a surgeon who is about to operate on us.” p37

“I dislike telling patients that their operation has been cancelled at the last moment just as much as I dislike telling people that they have cancer and are going to die. I resent having to say sorry for something that is not my fault and yet the poor patients cannot very well be sent away without anybody saying something.” p97/8

“The junior doctors work such short hours that they are desperate for even the most basic surgical experience.” p119

“how strange it is that I should now be listening to a young man with a background in catering telling me that I should develop empathy, keep focuses and stay calm.” p129 This was after Marsh had worked as a doctor for 30 years!

“Life without hope is hopelessly difficult but at the end hope can so easily make fools of us all.” p139

“Surgeons must always tell the truth but rarely, if ever, deprive patients of all hope…Nevertheless, sooner or later, most of the patients, like Helen, will reach the point of no return. It is often very difficult for both doctor and patient to admit that it has been reached.” p142

On the old X Ray system of hanging them up: “the system was completely reliable and quite unlike the computers that now dominate my working life.” p156

 

 

“Open” Andre Agassi

This one’s for you if you’d like to know more about tennis at the highest level, or about Agassi’s fascinating hatred of tennis.

One of the most common debates in sport is whether nature or nurture is more important in setting champions apart from their competitors. Andre Agassi could not have been given better nurturing as far as his tennis was concerned. His dad started his training program when Agassi was a baby, and spent long days with him on the tennis court in the garden with a contraption that Andre named “the dragon”, which fired balls at the young tennis prodigy. From his first tournaments in the under 10 age group, his talent caught people’s eye. But the long term psychological effects of being pushed into a sport so intense at such a young age, with incredible amounts of pressure from his father are evident, and described very openly in this book. Aside from Agassi as a person, it is interesting to grasp what is really goes on behind the scenes: all the injuries that are never spoken about, the easily explainable losses that are used by the press as ammunition with which to attack players, and the personal ups and downs that are inevitable for players who, at the end of the day, are only human. It really makes you appreciate how little the press really know about what is going on with each player. As a result they go on little nuggets, and have no problem filling in the gaps with whatever they feel will make the best story. As you suspect from watching on TV, the mental challenges that players face during the hours and hours of a single match are fascinating to read about.

“it’s the Four Seasons, so it’s lovely, but it’s still just another version of what I call Not Home. The non- place we exist as athletes.” p6

“I’m like a tennis racket on which I’ve replaced the grip four times and the strings seven times- is it accurate to call it the same racket?” p7

“It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” p8

“one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I’ve internalised my father- his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage- until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.” p38 Aged 8, having won 7 u10 tournaments in a row, Andre loses a match.

“You’re a tennis player! You’re going to be number one in the world! You’re going to make lots of money. That’s the plan, and that’s the end of it.” p57 After injuring himself playing football, Andre goes back to play again a few weeks later, much to the anger of his dad who removes him from the pitch.

“The warden has tacked several years to my sentence, and there’s nothing to be done but pick up my hammer and return to the rock pile.” p77 Andre goes to the Bollettieri Academy, which he compares to a prison, and after seeing him play for the first time, Nick Bollettieri phones his dad to offer to keep Andre on for free. Andre only decided to go because he thought he could go home after a few months, and nobody asks if he wants to stay.

“I learn about myself, create myself through imitation. How else could I do it? I spent my childhood in an isolation chamber, my teen years in a torture chamber.” p141 On the value of the team he built up around him.

“But I don’t feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing.” p165 Following 1992 Wimbledon.

“After all these years I’ve got what I’ve always wanted, something to play for that’s larger than myself and yet still closely connected to me.” p267 The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.

“No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.” p359

“Transformation is change from one thing to another, but I started as nothing. I didn’t transform, I formed…I think older people make this mistake all the time with younger people, treating them as finished products when in fact they’re in the process. It’s like judging a match before it’s over, and I’ve come from behind too often, and had too many opponents come roaring back against me, to think that’s a good idea.” p372 after a question from the press on his transformation.

“If this is a Man/The Truce” Primo Levi

This one’s for you if you’re interested in a beautifully written autobiographical book about an Italian Jew before, during and after the Second World War. His detailed account of his time at Auschwitz is harrowing, inspiring and incredibly moving in equal measure.

The sign outside Auschwitz had it’s motto written on it- “Arbeicht macht freit” which means work gives one freedom. p28

“He who loses all often easily loses himself” p30

Talking of ‘life’ within Auschwitz- “the only things alive are machines and slaves- the former are more alive than the latter” p78

“the more civilised the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak from being too weak or a powerful one too powerful” p94. I thought this was a very interesting measure of society.

“When one waits time moves smoothly without need to intervene…when one works, every minute moves painfully and has to be laboriously driven away.” p110

Talking of the constant proximity of death in the camp “until one day there will be no more sense in saying tomorrow” p139

And reflecting on the subject again at the end of the War- “there are no longer any strong men among us”, “they will only find us, the slaves, the worn-out, worthy of the unarmed death which awaits us”, “to destroy a man is difficult but you Germans have succeeded.” All p156

“I had completely forgotten the hunger and the cold…so true is it that the need for human contact is to be numbered among the primordial needs” p223

One’s moral universe “represents an abridged form of his biography” p224

Describing the passing of time at Auschwitz: “empty days, without encounters, without events to anchor the memory” p299

“there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is a hatred that is not in us, it is outside man…but we can and must understand from where it springs” p396

On why he thinks he managed to survive: “determination…to always recognise in my companions and myself, men, not things and then to avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck.” p398

Just to explain the two titles for this- you can buy the two books in combination which is what I did, effectively reading them both as one.

“Wild Swans” Jung Chang

This one’s for you if you’re interested in a very easy to read account of Chinese history.

Wild Swans is written as a personal history of 3 generations of women in the author’s family. According to an interview in 2013 in The Telegraph, it became the best selling non fiction paperback ever. I found her comment about the progression of the West particularly interesting in light of recent discussions of free speech.

“Dr Xia was not keen on taking medicine, insisting that the way to good health was a sound body…treatment…cured one part of the body while doing damage to another.” p52

“the barbarity of the age old customs, cloaked in ‘tradition’ and even ‘morality’ enraged her” p97

“The need to obtain authorisation for an unspecified ‘anything’ was to become a fundamental element of Chinese Communist rule. It also meant that people learnt not to take any action on their own initiative.” p158

“The party’s all round intrusion into people’s lives was the very point of the process known as thought reform. Mao wanted not only external discipline but the total subjection of all thoughts, large or small.” p193

“Spending a Saturday” came to mean making love because that was the day that married couples were allowed to be together. p228

“Mao feared that any independent thinking might lead to less than total obedience to him.” p233

There were 3 interesting quotes about work ethic in a communist society. “How much work was done did not matter because the produce now belonged to the state, and was completely unrelated to the peasants’ lives.” p273. “we frequently spent 10 hours in the fields doing a job which could have been done in five” p527. “The virtual absence of any chance of a better future and near total immobility for anyone born a peasant took the incentive out of the pursuit of knowledge” p532

“Many thought…that the famine was caused by natural disasters” p287

“I was incapable of rational thinking. We were so cowed and contorted by fear and indoctrination that to deviate from the path laid down by Mao would have been inconceivable.” p378

Mme Mao “We would rather have socialist weeds than capitalist crops”, “We want illiterate working people not educated spiritual aristocrats” p592

“it was the very tolerance of opposition, of protests, that kept the West progressing.” p602

Mao “ruled by getting people to hate each other…Mao had managed to turn people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China.” p633

“I am Malala” Malala Yousafzai

This one’s for you if you’re interested in the reality of life in Pakistan, or how a teenager from Swat Valley became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala’s book is easy to read and gives a fascinating first hand account of life in Pakistan over the last two decades. However much you read/watch/listen to the news, reading about life under the Taliban is shocking.

Malala is clearly an incredible young girl, whose courage and commitment to improving the lives of women in Pakistan is inspiring. But there are refreshing reminders that she is just like any other teenage girl and I loved her description of one girl stirring things up as “putting masala on the situation”.

“While most of us can’t live with our wives, he can’t live without his.”

On Pashtunwali code, “If a man in one family is killed or hurt by another man, revenge must be exacted to restore nang [honour]”.

“Our own intelligence service, ISI, virtually created the Taliban.”

“The Quran teaches us sabre- patience- but often it feels that we have forgotten the word and think Islam means women sitting at home in purdah or wearing burqas while men do jihad”

Speaking of the MMA, a group of 5 religious parties who were involved in training the Taliban, “it was as though they wanted to remove all traces of womankind from public life”

“First the taliban took our music, then our Buddhas, then our history”

“the girls of the Red Mosque madrasa…raided houses they claimed were being used as massage centres, they kidnapped women they said were prostitutes…When it suits the Taliban, women can be vocal and visible.”

Malala’s father “We are dependent on these mullahs to learn the Quaran. But you just use him to learn the literal meaning of the words; don’t follow his explanations and interpretation. Only learn what God says. His words are divine messages, which you are free and independent to interpret.”

“The Taliban could take our pens and books, but they couldn’t stop our minds from thinking.”

“When you are in the Taliban you have 100 per cent life security”

“Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human”

“Faqir [Mohammed] had a $200,000 bounty on his head  yet there he was sitting in a government offical’s house having dinner”

Why Malala’s father got involved in politics- “When half your leaders tell lies and the other half is negotiating with the Taliban, there is nowhere to go. One has to speak out.”

“As I found with my ear, no one knows how much power they have in their each and every organ until they lose one.”

 

I found Malala’s glossary helpful and thought I would include a few of the words here for anyone as ignorant as me.

jihad- holy war/internal struggle

purdah- segregation or seclusion of women, wearing a veil

madrasa- school for Islamic instruction

mullah- a derogatory term for an Islamic cleric- From Google.

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