Books I read during the covid pandemic
12 months ago the UK entered its first lockdown due to the Covid19 pandemic. My reading fell off a cliff. I couldn’t concentrate, I had no energy and no motivation to read. Eventually my reading mojo returned. Here’s what I read and learned over the past year.
Books are listed in roughly the order I read or listened to them. They are non-fiction unless otherwise indicated.
- Pale rider.* The Spanish flu pandemic a century ago (1918-1919) echoed much of what we are seeing today with Covid. It exposed existing inequalities within and between countries around the world. It was eye opening to read about how disease was treated in a world where germ theory was new and viruses had yet to been seen under a microscope (that did not happen until the 1930s) .
- Ogilvy on Advertising. I was reading this before Covid properly hit the UK and it took me months to finish because my brain was a mess. Once concentration was my friend again, I was treated to an advertising masterclass from David Ogilvy, of the most successful advertisers of the 20th Century. This book gives a great insight into using words (and pictures) to sell ideas on a page or screen. Highly relevant to anybody who has to persuade people in writing on a regular basis.
- Man’s search for meaning.* This book has been on my reading list for ages and I’ve heard and seen it recommended countless times. Now, I understand why it has had such a lasting impact on many readers. Read this to learn how hope and a way to carry on can be found in almost any situation. Man’s Search for Meaning contains reflections by Victor Frankl, a survivor of a nazi concentration camp, on what kept him and others going. He also touches on what made some forget their humanity both inmates and guards. A few years ago, when I was still teaching, I had the pleasure of hearing Harry, a concentration camp survivor talk to sixth formers about his experiences and later life. After his talk, he sat for a portrait for me and we had a chat for about half an hour. He was one of the most joyful and playful people I have ever met. This book made me think of him.
- The Vanishing Half (fiction).* I mostly read non-fiction these days and it’s nice to break it up occasionally and get my imagination going with fiction. As soon as I finished this book I missed the characters. The Vanishing Half is about twins who are born in the American South during segregation. We learn how their lives unfold as one decides to “pass” and live as a white woman while the other returns to their hometown after an abusive marriage and lives among her (highly colourist) Black community with her dark skinned daughter. The life of Stella, the white passing twin, demonstrates that if you are hiding from yourself you can never truly be close to anybody and will always be holding back. This is a multigenerational novel about love, belonging, acceptance and carving your own niche in the world whatever people around you may think, do or say. It also demonstrates how material and hereditary privilege doesn’t guarantee a happy life.
- Solve for Happy: Engineer your path to joy.* Happiness is about adjusting your expectations in life. You cannot control events but you can learn to control how you respond to them. The author, Mo Gawdat, knows what he is talking about. His teenage son died unexpectedly after a routine operation and he was forced to put the contents of the book into action. Gawdat is an engineer by training so he set about finding an equation for happiness His is a pleasingly geeky approach to what can be floaty self-help territory. I’ve listened to this book at least twice in the past year.
- Black and British: A short essential history. After the murder of George Floyd and global Black Lives Matter protests around the world, our 10 year old asked if we could read some books about Black History together. This is the children’s version of Black and British: A forgotten History (below), we read a chapter together at bedtime until it was finished. After each chapter my son initiated various conversations about what we had read and we all learnt a great deal from each other as well as the book. It was so interesting and illuminating that I immediately started reading the adult’s version.
- The Meaning of Mariah Carey.* I had to get this book. Mariah Carey’s music was the soundtrack to my late teens and early 20s. More specifically, the remixes. The audiobook is especially good because it’s narrated by Mariah herself, so you hear her laughter and emotions as she relates key periods of her life. I’m not a hardcore lamb (Mariah Stan) but I do think she is one of the most talented English speaking songwriters or the modern era. This book gives an eyeopening insight into her early life (her family life would have flagged her as a major a safeguarding risk if she’d gone to any of the schools I’d taught at) as well an honest portrayal of what it takes to become an international musical superstar. Mariah also details the stories behind the making of some her biggest songs, including My All and the Fantasy remix featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard – which are particular favourites of mine.
- Stillness is the key. This is the third in a trilogy by Ryan Holiday, repackaging lessons from stoic philosophy for a modern era by relating it to a variety of figures past and present. My key takeaway from this book was to create more time for reflection in life. I was inspired to write why we need solitude after reflecting on the lessons from this and related books.
- Black and British: A forgotten history. I bought this book a few years ago after reading Black, Listed as it was very heavily referenced. I kept putting it to one side because at 624 pages it’s biiiig book, I thought it would take me ages to read and be heavy going because of the subject matter. After reading the kids’ version (above) with the 10 year old I started reading this straight away. The history of Black people in Britain is an international history that is intertwined in major events within the Western World such as the American Civil War. Black history is not an interesting optional off-shoot, it is part of the narrative of events integral to the backstory of modern Britain such as the industrial revolution. This is a good companion book to Natives by Akala or A Brief history of Britain by Andrew Marr. Some surprising facts that I learnt: Freetown in Sierra Leone started as a British funded settlement including London’s Black Poor and some Black Americans who had been emancipated following their role on British side in American revolution.
- What is masculinity? Why does it matter and other big questions. Another bedtime read with the 10 year old. Great book aimed at 9-14 year olds which covers some big ideas. Questions explored include What is Masculinity? Why does it matter? Are there male and female brains? How does stereotyping affect children? These topics are fascinating to discuss with a person at the very beginning of their journey of understanding how who they feel they are matches up with how the views of others and wider society. It was also fun to discuss the only book aimed at children that I’ve contributed to to date.
- What is consent and other big questions? After What is Masculinity? we were on a roll so we decided to give this book, in the same series a go. Personally, I feel consent is a topic we often leave too late to discuss with children and young people, if at all. When we do it’s often solely in relation to sex or because consent has already been violated. This book is a great way to introduce the concept of consent to people over the age of 9 or 10 as well as an opportunity to consider your own answers to questions like: What are your personal boundaries? Have you ever changed your mind part-way through doing something and decided you wanted to stop? Did you express your feelings? It also made me think more broadly about consent in a way I hadn’t previously by including topics such as medical consent, consent and disability and FGM.
- How to disagree: Negotiate difference in a divided world. It feels like our society and world are becoming increasingly polarised. This feeling has been amplified during a year when many people have been at home due to a series of lock down measures and more time to be exposed to the news and strangers on the internet. I’ve had family members share skeptical information about vaccines and friends feel ostracised because of subjects they feel passionate about that are out of step with group dynamics. My job involves creating change to help prevent youth violence and it’s an area where passions run high and evidence or what works may contradict some people’s long held belief and practice. In short, this is a book I needed to read to help me understand other people better. I thought How to Disagree would have steps and a toolkit because I’m so used to reading business and self improvement books which have that format. It is pleasingly philosophical which makes sense given the co-authors are philosophers!
“The way ignorance works has consequences for the way in which we engage with one another” – Adam Ferner and Darren Chetty, How to Disagree
- Animal Farm (fiction) Power corrupts. Representation doesn’t matter if existing inequalities are perpetuated in different packaging [sideways glance at the authors of the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities]
- History of African and Caribbean Communities in Britain. This is the second book on Black history that the 10 year old wanted to read together at bedtime. It’s a shorter read than Black and British: a short essential history and narrower in scope. Still worth a look or an add to a school library, particularly for readers who are prefer more visuals in their history books.
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians (5 book series, fiction).* These series are a hit with the 7 and 10 year olds alike. It follows Percy Jackson, a young boy who discovers that he is a demi god and son of Poseidon. In each book Percy fights against evil beasts from Greek mythology while he saves the world (or America, which is the same thing in the books) helped by his friends Grover, a satyr and Annabeth, another demi God who is the daughter of Athena. During the past 12 months the audio book of the series has punctuated many car journeys. One even kept
methe kids happy for the journey from our house to the North York Moors and back.
- The Lost words. This book arrived as an unexpected present from a friend who knows about my love of nature and the outdoors. The titular lost words are “words that children used to name the natural world around them,” words such as conker, bramble, kingfisher that are “becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.” The Lost Words rescues and revives word such as adder, weasel and fern and converts them into vibrant and evocative poems. When the book arrived the 7 year olds (mistakenly) thought it was for them. They bypassed me, laid it on the floor and poured over the pages, saying the poems out loud, rolling the sounds around in their mouths and tapping the rhythms with their feet and hands. They were spellbound by this book and the illustrations, I have to agree with my friend that The Lost Words is “Nature Writing at it’s very best.”
- History of Jamaica. After reading Black and British I wanted to find out about the wider history of my family from the perspective of their (most recent) country of origin, Jamaica. This history starts with the original inhabitants, the Arawaks, also called Tainos, who migrated from the South American mainland and were decimated after Columbus arrived in the 1490s.** This book is by a Jamaican author and, I’m told, was part of the school curriculum. I learnt lots. For example, sugar, bananas and plantain, which I consider synonymous with the Caribbean are not native crops and were introduced by the Spaniards. The final chapters of this book nudged me talk to my nan about her experiences on the island as a girl during the 2nd world war- I hadn’t been aware that Jamaica had also undergone food rationing.
- Digital minimalism. This book is about making intentional and deliberate choices with our digital lives. As part of experimenting with how Digital Minimalism might add value to our lives, the author suggests a digital declutter. This involves removing all apps that make money from capturing and monetising your attention for increased periods of time. The idea is to remove them for a month and instead do other things that matter to you with the time gained. I wrote about my adventures in digital minimalism in a recent blog.
- The Northern Lights (fiction). First in a trilogy, this book follows the adventures of a young girl, Lyra, who has been abandoned between her wealthy, powerful parents and bought up by scholars under the protection of Jordan College, set in an alternative Oxford. While trying to find her friend Roger who has gone missing, she finds herself at the heart of a conflict between the mighty, controlling magisterium and freethinkers questioning the role of the truth, freedom and God. His Dark Materials trilogy is an epic tale set across several worlds including our own. I loved this series when I first read it and I’ve loved discovering it again with the 10 year old. It’s exactly the kind of art I had in mind when I wrote good art grows with you.
- The Bitcoin Standard.* Read this to understand more about crypto currencies, the history of money and why fiat currencies can experience hyper inflation. I knew nothing before reading this book but felt brave enough to buy a small amount of bitcoin after reading it.
- Think like a white man.* Think Like A White Man is like the satirical love child of Nico Machiavelli’s The Prince and (what I’ve heard of) Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power. It is a tongue in cheek study in power for people trying to survive and ultimately do what they can to thrive in an unequal corporate world. Whether it’s a satire that has notes of resonance or an offensive book that has you spitting “Not All!” depends on your experience. It also depends on how varied and truthful the people in your wider personal and professional networks are when they talk to you about their lives.
- Giovanni’s Room (fiction). What makes a Queer book? Should it be written by an author who identifies as Queer? Does it need to be about people who identify as some variety of LGBTQ+? Must both things be true? If the author is Black does that make it a Black Queer book even if it’s not about Black Queer people? I started Giovanni’s Room during LGBT+ history month because its author, James Baldwin, was a celebrated gay writer and I’ve never read any of his books. Baldwin also happened to be Black. At the time of first publication (1956) his publisher was annoyed that Baldwin had written a book that didn’t explore ‘Black issues,’ which is what he’d been known for up til that point. The protagonist, David, is a (white) American living abroad in Paris on handouts from family and wealthy friends in Paris. He appears to be running away from something, his family? Society? Himself? Giovanni’s room is a curious book. I was gripped by the story. I wanted to find out about what happened to the characters and why. I could empathise with them but I realised near the end that I disliked most of people in the book. This is could be because most of them dislike themselves and it comes out in how they treat others and move through the world of the book. As David explains, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. I succeeded very well—by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.”
- So Good they can’t ignore you.* This is aimed at young people starting their career journey but it’s also of interest to people at any stage of their career interested in doing work they feel is worthwhile and have some autonomy over. Spoiler. You don’t just get given a fulfilling and rewarding working life. You have to develop rare and valuable skills. Passion is overrated.
- Deep work.* If you don’t create time to think and create as a modern knowledge worker, you won’t thrive. Deep work lets you quickly learn hard things and create things that matter. I read this book after hitting a wall at work when I felt like meetings had taken over my working life and I wondered what the point of me was. It probably also coincided with feeling a bit flat during the 3rd lockdown in Britain, exhaustion and winter blues. My main action following reading this book was to block out 1.5- 2hr blocks of uninterrupted work time on most of my working days. This is generally in the morning when my brain is most alert. After that let the meetings commence! Interesting fact: Spending time in nature improves concentration (studies show this).
- Millionaire Teacher: The nine rules of wealth you should have learned in School. This is a book mainly about investing for everyday people. The author is a school teacher who used the rules that he learnt in the book to become a debt-free millionaire. This is a readable and clearly explained introduction to investing for newbies. Read it and you’ll be opening your first stocks and shares ISA with Vanguard in no time. Summary. Buy a balanced portfolio of index funds or ETFs with bonds appropriate to your age or risk profile. Hold them for a minimum of 20 years with a little rebalancing annually and you should beat most actively managed funds. Bitcoin evangelists will be laughing at this strategy though.
Return of the rude boy: Reading this I could hear an imaginary ska soundtrack in my head. It’s the companion book to an exhibition at Somerset House celebrating the visual aspects of rude boy culture. I loved this book because I enjoy strong visual imagery. The men and women in this book are like modern day dandies and they reminded me of Congolese sapeurs. A younger version of me used to have tens of pairs of trainers in different colours to match my outfits. These days I’m more minimalist but the secretly vain peacock in me loves looking at people with a clear sense of personal style who treat their daily dress like a performance.
*Listened on audiobook
**The elimination of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean by European explorers in the 15th and 16th century is a genocide not often discussed in the UK.
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