Review of Stephen King’s On Writing

I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), which I found to be interesting. I’ve read a few other books on writing recently, so I figured it’d be interesting to compare King to other writers.

In the past I’d heard that King’s book was not really all that great for a writer, so I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism.

I split my reading across four days; the first two days covered roughly a third of the book each, then I split the remaining third up between the rest of the main text and the appendices.

At the end of the first day, I was in agreement with the skeptics. On Writing contains enough autobiographical content to be considered King’s memoir (which, coincidentally, is mentioned right on the cover, so there’s not really a surprise there). If you like King’s writing (I do) it will be a pleasant enough read, but other than seeing some traits and habits you can emulate there’s not a whole lot there in the way of practical advice.

The rest of the book, the remaining days of reading, were much more effective. King launches into a top-to-bottom overview of his writing process, which is quite interesting. Although it generally doesn’t do a whole lot of coaching on some of the elements, it gives a certain amount of insight to each.

And this is really where the recommendation gets tricky.

You see, King doesn’t give a whole lot of details about how you should write. He gives points you’ll need to address if you want to be a good writer, sometimes in a very basic way (e.g. “What is a good starting seed for a story and how can you tell?”) and sometimes being more specific (e.g. “How should you structure paragraphs?”), but he never goes into meticulous detail about anything.

For me, as someone who’s a fairly comfortable writer who wants to open up the world of creative writing, that’s useful. But I taught English, and while I don’t always adhere to best practices (do as I say, not as I do), I am at least familiar with them.

If you’re writing and you worry that the quality isn’t good enough, King doesn’t really have a lot of stuff for you, other than the reminder that he practiced a ton and wrote a lot of subpar stuff before he got good (which is largely communicated in the memoir portion of the book). If you’re putting out work that other people find unintelligible, you’re going to need to learn to fix that elsewhere.

I think this is best illustrated by his example for editing.

Now, this comes from work that was contemporary with On Writing, so it’s after he’s already become an expert writer, but his first drafts look tremendous compared to any first draft I’m currently in the realm of (not that I’m a good benchmark for quality), or any I’ve ever seen outside Stephen King’s (people do not usually rush to present me with first drafts, so again I’m not the best benchmark here).

By the time King’s showing us the process, the manuscript would probably be in a publication-worthy state for a lesser writer.

Now, a lot of that’s because King doesn’t want to waste his reader’s time time; proofreading isn’t the focus, revision is.

But it is an example of how the book generally goes.

As someone who’s been through four books on writing in two (three?) months, I think it’s a great example of a companion to other books. A more advanced, less specific book that leaves more to the individual and treats them like a journeyman or master instead of as an apprentice.

Plus, it’s written by Stephen King. Even if the lessons are occasionally thin, the writing is good enough that I found it a pleasant read; King intersperses humor and examples well enough that you forget you’re reading what could be an incredibly dry book (and I’ve read the dry writing manuals, ones with exercises, for crying out loud!).

Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Review of Unbroken

I recently read the book Unbroken (Amazon affiliate link), written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken came out as a “major motion picture” a few years back, and I saw it in theaters and thought it was pretty good, but the problem with any film is that they have to choose between making things interesting and dumping a bunch of information on you.

A book, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide both information and engagement, since good writing can carry even a dry and boring subject to an amusing or fulfilling conclusion.

I’ve been meaning to read the book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, ever since I watched the movie. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII veteran, as he goes from a youth during the Great Depression to a man who overcomes some of the worst situations and harshest environments that people have ever found themselves in.

The book doesn’t pull any punches (a young-adult version is also available, aimed at students), but this helps it overcome the potential boredom that a 500 page book could descend into. A good portion of the book is dedicated to footnotes and notes, which turn Unbroken from mere story into a well-researched history and biography.

The story by itself would still be inspiring. Louis finds himself in Germany for the 1936 Olympics, joining the likes of Jesse Owens and others. Although Zamperini doesn’t directly experience or witness any persecution in Germany (which was trying to hide its crimes from the world at that point), he does see the gathering storm through a variety of signs, both subtle or otherwise.

Louis’s role as a bombardier in WWII is one of the more harrowing parts of the book. The sheer toll of the bombers on their crew and the number of airmen lost not just to the enemy but also to accidents sets a bleak precedent.

When Louis’s bomber crashes and he escapes along with two others (from a crew of around 10) to rafts, the story gets even more desperate, culminating in his eventual capture by the Japanese.

The POW experiences are captured well by the film, but the book goes into more detail about Louis’s fellow prisoners, showing them with a depth and richness that the film was incapable of replicating.

The film also ends with Louis’s freedom at the end of the war (a sequel was made, but went direct-to-disc), where Hillenbrand’s book carries through to the end of Louis’s life, with a major focus in the immediate postwar years.

It adds a level of complexity and hope to the story, showing not just what Zamperini went through but also what he accomplished.

Unbroken tells a tremendous story through its subject, but it matches the strength of its narrative with precise and deep language, the willingness to slow down to explain where necessary coupled with the skill to keep the pace flowing, and a raw and objective look at important events in history.

Unbroken may aim to tell a single person’s story, but it manages to speak to the human condition through its remarkable subject.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Review: Of Dice and Men

I recently read David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men (Amazon affiliate link), a book that provides an overview of what roleplaying games are and how they came to be.

I’m a game designer myself, so I’m fairly familiar with the industry. However, Ewalt’s work is intended for anyone; a novice or outsider can benefit just as much as an old-school gamer.

This can be credited to his journalistic work, actually going on the ground and talking to people who were intimately involved with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.

And the book predominantly focuses on D&D. There’s a few reasons for that; not the least of which being that D&D is the largest game and that the events surrounding it tend to have to been played out over and over again within the industry. Ewalt’s own gaming hobby extends beyond D&D, though most of the examples of gaming are given from the context of D&D’s “3.5” edition.

With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in a 250 page book, more mention could be made of alternative games. Ewalt has a connection to D&D that runs deep, both in terms of the game itself and the interviewees throughout the book, but he misses a lot of potential by not looking outside the box. While he is able to draw a few connections that would be difficult to draw from scattered details and show a side of the industry that you don’t always get to see from the outside by getting an inside look at how the sausage is made, so many of the events are part of “nerd canon” as it were that there’s a little bit of overlap.

And it’s worth noting that Ewalt’s story is deeply personal. If you have no experience with D&D at all, this serves an illustrative purpose. I can appreciate it as a journalistic device as well, since it’s giving an insight to how the game is actually played.

These interludes are not poorly written, though I wouldn’t describe it as being made up of grand narratives. They’re evidentiary, not epic, and somewhat romanticized and streamlined (at least compared my own experiences).

I personally enjoyed the book quite a bit. It covers a variety of angles: personal interest, living history, explanation of a phenomena, and so forth. However, the one place where I will give it a bit of grief is this: Of Dice and Men really wants to be incredibly dramatic, and there are places where it is willing to sacrifice to do so.

Let me give an example. There’s a section where Of Dice and Men covers the whole history of gaming, but goes through it in maybe twenty or thirty pages. It also spends thirty pages on wargaming, which directly preceded D&D (Gary Gygax was primarily involved with wargaming when D&D became the new hot thing, as was Dave Arneson). The legal woes of TSR practically get a chapter unto themselves (which is not necessarily bad), while the decade and a half following them gets largely blipped over until we come to D&D Next.

Admittedly, this is the time which would be familiar to most gamers at the time of publication, but at the same time it feels like it’s a bit of a jarring transition. When you’ve already got 250 pages, what are another 50? Some incredibly influential games, like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade get hardly any mention, and despite the in-depth history of TSR almost none of their other games get any serious coverage.

I don’t think that this is accidental, but I do think that if Ewalt had wanted to cover the full phenomena of roleplaying games as a culture he could have included some of the more notable alternatives, both because they’ve had a huge influence and because they serve as a potential gateway to people who don’t have an interest in the swords-and-sorcery setting that D&D is most known for. Likewise, the main discussion of D&D’s many settings is limited to Greyhawk and Blackmoor, both of which are noteworthy and meaningful, but the transition to different settings marks noteworthy philosophical shifts.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a lot of good ideas for people who want to get into gaming, and it has stuff that even an old hand like myself can get into and learn from. However, it doesn’t quite achieve what I think it set out to achieve. If you rely on it for all your knowledge you’ll be left with gaps. This is true of almost any book, but Of Dice and Men comes so close to greatness that it legitimately hurts when it only nears its potential.

Review: The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll (Amazon affiliate link) is a non-fiction book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard. It focuses primarily on how scrolls were used in the Middle Ages in Europe (but also covers the global use of scrolls in passing), and gives plentiful examples from a variety of contexts.

When I say that The Role of the Scroll covers a niche topic, I do not mean to say that it is strictly scientific and bland. Far from going into meaningless specifics about minutiae, it focuses on the historical significance of scrolls both as a class of document and as individual examples of manuscripts that changed or represented the world.

I generally enjoyed the book, though I have a few complaints that I’ll get to later. First I’d like to start with what I liked about it, and I’ll get to the rougher patches in a bit.

The strongest point of this whole book is that it elevates a very humble thing and dives into it in a way that to my knowledge has never been done before. As someone who likes reading quite a bit and has a connection with the written word, it’s interesting to see examples of a device that is not quite as dead as it may seem (I am typing this review in a text-box, a sort of digital scroll), and which had a tremendous value for shaping our world.

The opening chapters are strictly limited to scrolls themselves, giving examples from across world history and not just Europe (something I consider a strong point), and they’re probably the most similar to the sort of history book you’d expect.

Once you get past the opening chapters, Kelly moves into overviews of the various types of scroll used in the Middle Ages. Each overview uses examples from surviving scrolls, and the overall style is more lively and deep.

Kelly is professor of music, but he handles history fantastically well. The only hint that one gets that Kelly’s focus is in music and not history is in his deeper focus on musical works than some of the other documents, but even this is handled in a way that’s tremendously accessible.

The print edition I had was printed on thick glossy paper and had beautiful illustrations. The actual printing itself is fantastic and the book feels both good in the hand and easy to read. Some text for the captions around the illustrations of scrolls was hard to read in certain light (white text on a glossy black page background), so I might recommend the digital edition for anyone who would find this to be an issue. The scrolls themselves are not always able to be read; the reproduction is good, but often a whole scroll of several feet in length winds up on a page. Fortunately, Kelly points out interesting excerpts from the text, sometimes in captions by the illustration and sometimes in the main body text of the book, and one gets a feel for the beauty and majesty of the scrolls without necessarily being able to read them.

My only gripe is that The Role of the Scroll feels like it’s half-way between being a book for laypeople and a book for historians. On one hand, Kelly goes into a lot of detail explaining what people might need to know and establishing the human condition that led to the creation of scrolls. This is generally done in a way that even those not familiar with European history would be able to appreciate.

On the other hand, Kelly’s focus on making things immediately comprehensible to a layperson also means that basic things that would be common knowledge for people with a good knowledge of history get expanded upon greatly. This is then mirrored by an abstention from going into the most deep and complicated elements of the situations surrounding scrolls (except as pertains to music, where Kelly goes into greater detail). It may be that some of this information is not immediately available or would quickly veer off topic (for example, only a very cursory account is given of alchemical scrolls, but to give greater detail would definitely require going on a tangent).

Ultimately, this is a good book for an interesting read, and the illustrations stand out wonderfully throughout. It gives both a personal and serious look at its historical subjects, and leaves one with a greater understanding of the topic.

Writer’s note: Because The Role of the Scroll has no reviews on Amazon, I cross-posted this text there. I gave a five-star review, though if given more granularity I’d probably give it more of a 4.5 or 4.7 out of 5. It’s far from a perfect text, but it is a pioneering one.

Review of The Hero With an African Face

I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.

The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.

He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.

As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.

I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.

A book like this has three ways it can provide value.

The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.

As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.

The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.

Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.

This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.

Review of Letters to A Young Writer

I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.

If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.

Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.

So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.

With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.

First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.

Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”

While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).

As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.

To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.

If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.

All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.

There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.

The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.

So do I recommend it?

It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.

Review of Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4 (Amazon affiliate link) by John McPhee is one of the clearest and best books on writing I have ever read, if not the best book on writing I have ever read. It really helped me break through some of the blocks I’ve had as a writer and move on with my writing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.

When I started reading, I didn’t know who McPhee was. Over the course of reading, I discovered more about him, but the goal of Draft No. 4 isn’t to provide a biography, it’s to provide guidance.

The best way that I can describe this is as follows: McPhee shows how he earned his place in the writing world by giving an overview of what a writer has to do to get there.

This doesn’t mean the book is perfect; it doesn’t cover a lot of adiaphora and is generally focused on non-fiction writing (including creative non-fiction, a field I don’t have much experience in), and also on the general practice of writing.

Now, maybe I’m just a nerd, but I found McPhee’s constant insights to the writing world to be actually quite fun. Like, even in lieu of the whole “oh hey, I can learn something here” aspect of such a book, you get to have the pleasure of hearing about people and places and how those people and places got turned into a story.

The best example of this comes at the end of the book, where McPhee recounts an encounter with Eisenhower (yes, that Eisenhower). Eisenhower was painting a still-life and had left out some grapes, and McPhee recounted that:

“Ike said, ‘Because they’re too God-damned hard to paint.’”

This is just one example of how McPhee recounts lessons (the lesson here is that sometimes a writer just can’t capture something in words) by combining practical, but theoretically presented, advice with personal anecdotes that go beyond just serving as evidence and instead are used to add some vibrancy to the text.

Draft No. 4 is a book that I often found myself saying “Just one more chapter” to, even though each chapter is rather substantial. The organization of the book is such that each chapter focuses on a particular domain of the writer.

The great thing about the book is that McPhee has actually written some very impressive books and he recounts a lot of his process within Draft No. 4. Not only is it full of personal anecdotes, it also features fairly detailed accounts of the making of a couple of his personal favorite works.

The first couple chapters in particular do this quite a bit. At first when I started reading, I felt overwhelmed. McPhee starts with technical writing advice, explaining his work using diagrams and terminology that even I, an English major, struggled with at first.

Then he gave an example of how he wrote in process, and it all made sense. It was a showcase of how to tell a story and how to lay out a text, but also how to figure out the methods you want to use for each, and how to move from writing simple things as a novice to more complicated things as a master.

Couple that with more domain-specific overviews of the writing process and you’ve got a great book that can help both someone with relatively little professional writing experience (like myself) and someone like a veteran writer looking for tips and inspiration.

It’s worth noting that while McPhee showcases his own experience, he never does it out of self-indulgence. It’s always part of an object lesson, and sometimes he points out embarrassing or foolish mistakes on his own part to make sure that a lesson learned painfully can be passed on to people who hopefully listen and learn from his mistakes. That’s the mark of a great teacher.

Draft No. 4 is a tremendous book, and I highly recommend it. There is some harsh language, in academic or mimetic context, and a couple more adult moments described in the context of journalism, so it’s not something that I would feel comfortable using in anything lower than a college classroom, but it’s something that I would find invaluable for any student with the maturity to see McPhee’s talent and advice for what it is.

Review of Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I listened to Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link) on audiobook. It’s a large book, and it was of interest to me largely because I’ve studied a lot of Jung’s ideas (and their derivatives as presented by Campbell. Pearson, and Peterson) and I wanted to get a more intimate picture of Jung’s views and life so that I could put his work in context.

As a memoir, it’s interesting. It’s definitely one of the more difficult memoirs out there, but it’s still got the sort of personal interest that you’re going to see in most memoirs. Because Jung is something of a revolutionary thinker, it’s often a little difficult to follow what he talks about, and I was glad to have read Man and His Symbols (my review) and Modern Man in Search of a Soul prior to tackling Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

Those hoping for an intimate picture will be perplexed. Jung is entirely open about his outer life, and most of his inner life, but there are things which he withholds from his memoir that would be of particular interest given that they would have peculiar interest in a psychoanalytic context. This is a vague description, but it’s the best I can do, because the withholdings are themselves eclectic: seemingly minute but yet significant enough that Jung mentions them in their exclusion.

At the same time, one gets a picture of who Jung is; albeit one that is scattered between significant points in his life. His adult life is largely unmentioned, sometimes explicitly out of respect for those who are living and who might be impacted, but at other times one has to wonder why Jung chose to skip over so much of his own personal life and whether it is that he considered some things self-evident, if they escaped his notice, if they were intentionally withheld, or if they simply weren’t able to be worked into the book.

Jung’s early life and religious experiences get an intensive focus at the start of the book, and his father plays a particularly interesting role as a sort of anti-Jung: someone who has stifled his visions and stuck comfortably with the role of a conforming member of society. Jung’s first symbolic dreams and impulses are recorded here, and one can get a picture of him as a unique individual very early on.

As someone who had to read some Freud in college, I find Jung’s recounting of his professional and personal relationships with Freud as particularly interesting (not to mention the letters published in the appendices which Freud wrote to Jung). While going into depth about their relationship would require either a crash course in the teachings of both men or an assumption that the reader is familiar with both, it’s worth noting that Jung’s perspective on his time spent both as heir apparent and then disgraced pariah in Freud’s eyes is covered, albeit not in great detail when compared to Jung’s early life.

Letters from Freud were included in the appendix, which give Freud’s perspective (at least as he communicated it to Jung), and Jung has interesting thoughts on Freud that are not necessarily unique to Jung but benefit from the personal relationship they shared.

Jung’s travels make up another section of the book. While some of the language he uses is outdated, and he is not an anthropologist, he has a great deal of insight and respect for what he calls “primitive” people, and particularly respects their beliefs as being no less sophisticated, though perhaps less well communicated and developed by exposure to other ideas, than those of the modern West.

On one hand, he goes into much less detail here than he does in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, but he also adds the personal element of his experiences into the mix, giving some context that is otherwise missing, and he also recounts particular events in greater detail, like his experiences with Native American solar faiths.

As is usual, one gets the impression of Jung that he is so brilliant that people have a hard time telling where he is right and wrong: sometimes giving him too much credit and at others discounting everything that he has discovered. As a visionary, he presents a view of the world that has a sort of mystical magnificence to it, where dream and reality blur.

Of course, dream and reality are perceived through the same faculties, and there’s an element of truth to Jung’s ideas, but one also gets he sense that he lets himself descend into revelry. He espouses strong support for metaphysical persistence of the psyche (I mean, as a devout Christian I do as well, but my own approach is to accept on faith, not to have intuited it myself), but does so almost entirely based on the notion of logic driven from experiences of the unconscious, intuition, and precedent in cultural and religious phenomena.

There was a fairly long section of Memories, Dreams, and Reflections which could be described as positively New Age, but if one considers that Jung expresses the totality of his beliefs without reservation, there’s probably not so much airy dreaming as actual thought in most of his claims. It’s also worth noting that a lot of Jung’s terminology has come to mean something else than it originally had (e.g. psychic meaning “to have a relationship with the psyche” rather than charlatan fortune-telling), so what sounds like quackery may have a firmer empirical foundation than otherwise expected.

Near the end, there are very interesting questions about the role that individualism, spirituality, and social progress will play in the coming era, and I actually found it to be one of the most well-reasoned discussions of what has become an in vogue topic. Jung’s assertion that individuals have to accept the unknown and the unconscious to pursue individuation within the pattern of complete being (I simplify at the risk of causing confusion) as an antidote to the totalitarianism of the 20th century is something that I think is incredibly valuable, and echoes my own personal experiences of self-development in recent years.

Jung also gives a great breakdown of his concept of archetypes, though he doesn’t go into depth about particular archetypes.

The audiobook is read by James Cameron Stewart, who does a good job of it. I don’t have any complaints with the audiobook, and Stewart sounds like one would expect Jung to sound (though not necessarily a match for Jung). There weren’t any issues that I found as I listened on Audible.

Basically, if you want an introductory overview of the work of Jung, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for. As a memoir it frustrates its purpose by being so deeply tied to Jung’s theories and work that I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone who is not already familiar with Jung’s ideas.

However, as a companion to Jung’s other work it is illuminating.

Review of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield is something of a surprise celebrity, but when you look at the sum of his career it is no mystery how he came to be so successful.

The biggest question I had when I started reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link) was whether Hadfield’s celebrity would translate into success as a writer. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Hadfield), and I have to say that I was quite impressed.

I’d say that An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is 50% memoir, 50% useful advice, and 100% interesting. Of course, as someone who grew up with sci-fi and fantasy of all sorts as their main reading staple and a lot of nerdy interests, space holds an immediate appeal to me, but it’s actually the strength of the personal stories that helped it.

I think that this is where it is elevated above self-help. A lot of self-help books have to distance themselves from the question of their author, because the author always sounds like they’re being arrogant and bragging. I think that An Astronaut’s Guide is in line with something like Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People (full disclosure: I started reading the latter and then misplaced my copy very early on, so I’ve only read a little of it) because both are incredibly intimate and written by someone who can claim astronomical success (ha!).

An Astronaut’s Guide is great because it includes examples. There’s a hybridization of stoic philosophy and kaizen, the art of continual improvement, that is brought together without any use of technical language or pretense.

Tied so closely as it is to personal narratives, I find Hadfield’s advice easy to emulate. It’s already helped me to refocus my efforts on writing and getting into shape (my usual morning walk became a walk-run this morning in part because Hadfield reinforced in me the importance of striving toward goals incessantly, and I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyment it brought me).

The greatest idea here is that there’s a resolution between the great unknown of potential (both limitations and boosts) and the need for personal effort that Hadfield communicates so subtly that one could assume he’s not even trying. He literally makes it look easy.

One example of this is his -1/0/+1 philosophy. It’s probably the largest example of him using numbers to describe success, but it’s also incredibly simple: you need to ask whether you’re adding to or taking away from a team. When you start, it’s a good idea to just aim for being a 0, because you might think you’re improving things when you’re really just causing problems for everyone else. Learn to fit in, then learn to excel.

It’s mesmerizing and hard to put down, and An Astronaut’s Life ate up a lot of my time as I was going through it. Hadfield is genuinely funny, too, which leads to lots of fun laughs throughout.

I could ramble on with more praise, but suffice it to say that it’s probably my top self-improvement book this year so far, and by such a large margin that I find it unlikely to be displaced (with apologies to previous books, whose recommendations I must now rescind).

To quickly talk about the audiobook, it’s narrated by Hadfield. As a Canadian, he has the particular Canadian vowel sounds (e.g. in “again”) that always sort of rattle US listeners (or me, at least), but he’s got such a fluid performance and presentation that you’ll get used to it quickly and it really does benefit from him doing the reading. Not having the text to compare to, I’d still say that the audiobook is a safe bet.

So, basically, is this a drop everything and read it book? Perhaps. It certainly helps with setting and meeting goals, though it’s not going to teach complex systems. If, like me, you enjoy simplicity in your search for self improvement plus a yarn that’s worth paying attention to, it’s a good option for you.