The Magnet 049: Eight Useful Nonfiction Books
I looked through my bookshelves to find books that have been useful in one way or another. I selected eight to present here. These books have changed my outlook, changed my opinions, made me less ignorant, or offered useful tips for doing things. Fiction books can do all those things, too, but the books in this list (with one exception) were written as advice books.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser (321 pages)
I learned to write more clearly
I’ve read this book cover to cover three times. It’s packed with a veteran journalist’s hard-fought wisdom. It’s probably time to read it again.
“Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.”
“… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.”
“Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.”
Astonish Yourself, by Roger-Pol Droit (210 pages)
I learned to appreciate the weirdness of life
French philosopher Roger-Pol Droit’s “101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life” helped me become more observant and appreciative of things that I either never paid attention to or considered too mundane to consider—doing these experiments gives me a childlike sense of wonder.
“Wake Up Without Knowing Where: You are asleep, and suddenly a noise, a light, or just the alarm pulls you out of it. You know you are not at home, but, for a brief lapse of time, you don’t know where you are. Five seconds is the usual interval. Then you remember, you see, you know: the town, the house, the why and wherefore. The experiment consists in exploring this moment, suspended there between your first awakening and when you find your bearings. Despite its brevity, it is a moment of considerable interest. You feel, effectively, as though you’ve slipped your moorings. Weightless. Not necessarily worried, or preoccupied, but surrounded by whiteness, by pure light. As they do in movies, you can say: ‘Where am I?’”
“Consider humanity to be an error: Consider humanity as a result of pure chance, a mistake, a biological accident. It developed without order, on some lost pebble in some small benighted corner. One day it will disappear forever, unremembered and unmourned. For the tens of thousands of years of its survival, our species stagnated. Then it multiplied unreasonably, and plundered its own habitat. And before disappearing, it will have charged to its account a weight of suffering both unimaginable and futile, massacres and famines, enslavements and tyrannies. Take a clear-eyed look at this absurd and violent species. Confront its lack of justification and its ephemeral, irrational existence. Train yourself to endure this vision of humanity as fundamentally meaningless and futureless. This should contribute to your serenity. For against this background of unmeaning and horror, every sublime thing shines out the more as a matchless gift. Perfect music, unforgettable paintings, the glory of cathedrals, grief-stricken poems, lovers’ laughter ... Such are the endlessly surprising fruits of this aberration that is us.”
The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money and Markets, by Richard Saul Wurman, et al. (121 pages)
I gained an overview of the world of finance
Written in FAQ form, this highly visual book covers stocks, bonds, mutual funds, futures, options, and money. I have the 1990 edition, which is outdated. The most recent edition seems to be from 2019. (Pulling this from my shelf, I noticed for the first time that the primary author, Richard Saul Wurman, was the founder of the TED conference.)