My favourite books of 2016

Ok, so this is a bit late - but here are three books that really stood out for me last year. Part of the reason I've delayed this post is I wanted to write in more detail about each of these books, but since I haven't gotten round to that, I at least wanted to briefly share these:

1. Impro -- Keith Johnstone

A book about theatre and improvisation that's about so much more than theatre and improvisation - a book about social interaction and identity, how we perceive ourselves and others, and the things that constrain us. I found this incredibly dense with insights and wisdom - I'm not sure I've ever highlighted/commented in a book so much, or so strongly felt I needed to read a book multiple times to even begin to make the most of it. Keith Johnstone's TED talk is also excellent - definitely my favourite TED talk ever.

I don't even really know where to begin explaining what I got from this book , and I hope to write more about it at some point. I think the biggest thing for me was just realising how much I'm holding back all the time out of fear of being judged, how afraid I am to express myself, of doing the wrong thing, of allowing myself to look silly.

Thanks to Uri Bram for buying this book for me years ago, and somehow knowing it was exactly what I needed well before I was able to see it myself. I somehow couldn't get into it until this year - I think I just wasn't quite in the right place. 

2. I Am A Strange Loop -- Douglas Hofstadter

This is the book Hofstadter wrote years after Godel, Escher, Bach - in response to the fact he felt no-one really got what he was trying to say with GEB (despite the fact it was so popular.) I'm actually only reading GEB now, after having read this - I figured that if Strange Loop was supposed to be a clearer exposition of Hofstadter's ideas, it made sense to read it first. I feel like this was a good decision - I enjoyed it even more than I expected to, and I think I'm finding GEB easier to get into now - I tried reading it a few years ago and it somehow just didn't grab me enough.

I think part of the reason I liked this book so much is it really pushes all my nerd buttons. I've always been fascinated by philosophical questions of consciousness and identity, as well as really enjoying mathematical logic and weird semantic paradoxes and self-reference. These had always seemed quite separate to me - so someone coming along and proposing to link them together, to explain consciousness using logic and self-reference, feels so satisfying to me. Hofstadter is also just an excellent, engaging writer - I think he uses stories and analogies in a really skilful way to make tricky concepts accessible and engaging.

I don't necessarily think Hofstadter manages to crack consciousness completely - but he certainly gave me a different way of thinking about it that I find really useful. Again, hope to write more about this at some point...

3. The Center Cannot Hold -- Elyn Saks

I got really into reading autobiographies this year - particularly memoirs of mental illness. This was my favourite: an autobiography of a woman with schizophrenia. Something I really enjoy when reading is feeling like I'm getting to understand a totally different perspective (which I think is why I've enjoyed autobiographies so much.) I particularly enjoy memoirs of mental illness just because they give me insight into the different ways that people struggle - it's not even that they're about mental illness per se, but just some ways in which the author has found life difficult. I like the honesty and openness that comes with this kind of writing, and I find it helpful to hear others acknowledge just how difficult it is to be human sometimes.

I particularly loved this book, I think, because (a) I knew very little about schizophrenia before, so it was really interesting to learn about, and (b) I was surprised just how... identifiable a lot of the author's experiences sounded, despite the fact I've never experienced anything close to psychotic symptoms. Hearing someone describe how they ended up sitting on a floor in a mental hospital just rocking back and forth moaning for days on end, and thinking, I can totally see how she ended up there, made me extra-aware of just how grey the line between "mentally healthy" and "mentally ill" really is. It made me more aware of how fragile the mind is and how fragile our grip on reality can be. Our brains are generally very good at making sense of the world, of filtering out nonsense, of organising our experiences in a coherent way. I think we take for granted how much hard work is going on here, and it's just not that surprising to me that sometimes these things can break down. So much of what Saks describes just sounds to me like these basic abilities failing in small ways - her brain struggling to filter out what's irrelevant, to zone out silly thoughts that make sense, to organise reality in a neat way. And it just doesn't seem that weird or surprising to me that this could happen - which in turn I think makes 'madness' look much less mad.

Thanks to Kate Donovan for the recommendation!

(I'm conscious of not wanting to sound like I'm oversimplifying schizophrenia - I'm aware I still really have no idea what causes psychosis or what it feels like - but this is just the impression I took from this book.)


I've also found it interesting to notice myself drawing connections between these three books, despite the fact they seem really different on the surface. On some level, they're all about how we organise and make sense of the world, and particularly how we conceptualise ourselves. Strange Loop is about where our sense of identity comes from - how this arises from our ability to abstract away from the basic elements of reality, forming higher-level concepts including a concept of ourselves - and how the weird feedback loop this creates (my perception of myself feeds back into the things that I think and do which then feed back into my perception of myself...) may help explain what gives rise to conscious experience.

A lot of what I took from Impro had to do with how this ability to perceive ourselves, and think about how others might perceive us, can constrain us. A lot of what improvisation is aiming to do seems to be teaching people to 'let go' of a maintaining a certain self-image, or the need to organise reality in certain neat ways. 

The image of schizophrenia I took from The Center Cannot Hold seems to say something about what happens when the brain's basic abilities to organise and make sense of the world aren't able to function properly: when the brain struggles to organise everything in a coherent manner, when it struggles to maintain a stable self-image, when it can't quite filter out what's relevant from what isn't. All of this just makes me aware of how crucial and yet fragile these abilities are, and how much we take them for granted.