Wednesday, June 1, 2022

You are what you read

When I was about 6 years old, I remember hearing: "You are what you eat."

It was meant to explain the importance of nutrition, and in a way, the phrase is literal. Food goes into our bodies and becomes part of us.

With so much streaming and digital consumption nowadays, I'd like to amend that phrase to either "You are what you consume," or "You are what you scroll," or better yet, "You are what you read."

As this school year winds down, here are my favorite books from this year. I've read 23 books cover to cover this past year, and I will break down the best of the best, AKA the ones I unabashedly recommend. However, I must point out this was an odd year of reading for me because I experimented with a boatload of books I didn't finish. I read more sci-fi and YA books, but it turns out I hardly was into any of them.

And let's be real from the beginning. Some I read, but I don't recommend. I probably stuck with them because they were short or easy reads. I found the following few overrated, and I do not recommend them: Drunk Tank Pink (2013) by Adam Alter, Dopamine Nation (2021) by Anna Lembke, Matched (2010) by Allie Condie, Presence (2015) by Amy Cuddy and Just Listen (2009) by Mark Goulston. 

However, those above books should get props — props for marketing or popularity — because I actually did read them. I've heard that only 60 percent of books bought are ever opened. Books finished? That's hard to estimate. What is it? Ten percent, if that?

A couple years ago, I was reading a book about publishing by agent Jeff Herman, who on page 30 said, "If you are actually reading this, please email me and say 'hi.'" I did, and he responded later that day. Let me do the same thing and pretend this is page 30. If you are actually reading this, email me at and say "hi." 

And congratulations to you! You are what you read, not what you scroll. Or you're so good at scrolling, you saw that — an Easter egg.  

Without further adieu, here are the top 10 books I recommend from this year. I'll kind of cheat by counting two books by bell hooks as one spot.

1. Teaching Community (2003) and Teaching to Transgress (1994) by bell hooks. I must give props to a friend, Elysse Hind, for pointing me toward bell hooks. I absolutely loved these two books, and bell hooks framed teaching in a way that helps me see each day in the classroom as an act of love.

I've incorporated a lot of hooks' philosophy into my classroom. One huge takeaway is that it's silly to deny students' spirits in public classrooms. Oftentimes, our spirits, or souls, are tied to religion, and so a sad accident can be the denial of the spirit. I feel my basic job as an educator is to connect to students' spirits and uplift them.

Every year, I have students present a book they read to the class. I do the assignment, too, and presented Teaching Community in the fall. Bell hooks then passed away on Dec. 15. I feel fortunate to have read her work while she was still with us.

2. The Courage to Teach (1997) Parker Palmer

Bell hooks mentioned Parker Palmer in Teaching Community, and I looked him up and stumbled across The Courage to Teach. I absolutely loved it.

I was so naive when I started full-time teaching 14 years ago. I thought school was about education. I quickly learned that education only is a sliver of the equation of what school is. It takes courage to actually teach in cultures of assigning work, grading, indoctrination and the hullabaloo of it all.

Palmer inspired me to make an extra commitment to teaching, understand that true teaching is a revolutionary type of action and that I must develop my inner spirit to support my students. 

3. Thinking in Bets (2018) by Annie Duke

Well, I don't only read teaching books, and I love family/friend games of no limit Texas hold 'em. When the World Poker Tour and poker on TV was popular, I couldn't get enough, and people who follow poker certainly know Annie Duke.

Annie Duke is not only a poker pro, but huge in the corporate speaking world, and Thinking in Bets is both entertaining and interesting. Right off the bat, she helped me realize that life is more like poker than chess because of the unknown. In chess, all is open for us all to see, and chance is kinda out of the equation. That's not how it works in life and poker.

I also internalized how good decision making isn't about the result. It's about making the best choice with the knowledge at the time. So the next time your all-in kings lose to all-in jacks, understand that you absolutely made the right choice — even though you lost. 

4. The Biggest Bluff (2020) by Maria Konnikova

I liked this book so much I went back and read Konnikova's The Confidence Game (2016) too. Was I a mark for liking these books so much?

With poker legend Erik Seidel as her mentor, Konnikova becomes a legitimate poker player and celebrity, despite saying she knew nothing about poker and wanted to approach it from a psychologist's perspective. It was fun to read about her poker development and emotions during her wild ride to poker prominence.

5. How to Do Nothing (2019) by Jenny Odell

Bird watching is actually bird noticing. We're probably not going to see them, but listen. They're there.

With so much buzz and so many unintentional grabs of the cell phone, Odell helped me see that a lot of the "I'm on the phone too much" feelings I have are universal. Nowadays, it perhaps is an art form to simply do nothing and just be. This book helped me reclaim my life after being stuck in screen-time warp of daily nothingness.

6. Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I noticed this book on the New York Times' best seller list and wasn't too excited to read it because it seemed out of the realm of what I normally like. But reading Braiding Sweetgrass is like engaging in a long, much-needed hug from Kimmerer.

She is a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and she helped me revision how I see the planet, human's relations to it and misconceptions I had about the indigenous perspective. Right from the opening pages with the creation story featuring Sky Woman, Kimmerer shows a calming, loving mood toward nature, and I hope to maintain that feeling toward nature, too.

7. Multiplication is for White People (2012) by Lisa Delpit

As we head back to an education book, Delpit illuminates a lot of obvious issues in schools that, thankfully, are somewhat being addressed more nowadays since the publication of this 10 years ago. With the systemic racism inherent in education and many of our nation's institutions and the myth perpetuating that certain African-American children "inner city" neighborhoods cannot achieve,  Delpit tackles huge issues that need attention.

Personally, I have no easy answer for helping low-achieving students and schools move forward. However, I do have two simple ideas. 1) Schools have to do their best to create cultures of support and love for children. Then, 2) they must bring back students as teachers who live in their neighborhoods.

Just as I don't believe it's the best policy to have police officers working in communities they don't live, I believe the same thing about teachers. Teach for America? Maybe that's an OK Plan B. But do we really want suburban white kids in neighborhoods they have no connection to? I say we can build up communities by empowering children to become educators and stay in the communities that matter to them.

8. Tender Bar (2005) by J.R. Moehringer

My beautiful wife Dina and I totally loved this movie on Amazon Prime, and I went back and read the memoir it was based on. I loved the remarkable differences between the book and movie because in the movie, Uncle Charlie is played by all-American hero Ben Affleck. In the book, Uncle Charlie has alopecia and at one point, gets arrested connected to gambling.

I enjoyed the book so much because of the culture of how men were during the '70s and '80s. Toxic? Probably. But pretty cool, too. It was a breath of fresh air to read about how the bar in Manhasset, Long Island, was the centerpiece of the town and attracted people regardless of profession, social class and politics.

Similar to the movie, the book oozes of nostalgia for a time when communities mattered and people weren't glued to screens. Maybe communities still matter, but around me, everyone seems to be on their phones, looking for something bigger and better than the corner bar.

9. Kids These Days (2017) by Malcolm Harris

I must admit that this Gen Xer falls into the trap of stereotyping my millennial brethren. Do they really know hard work? Do they ever look up from their phones? Is it possible to have a phone conversation with them?

The great thing about Kids These Days is that Harris dispels millennial stereotypes and has me see how human capital has shifted in the digital age. The reality is that millennials are doing more and getting less than previous generations. They're more educated than previous generations, but they're often buried under student-loan debt. Their extra education likely doesn't reflect their income.

If I can build off of Kids These Days, I will point out that the trends mentioned in the book are increasing with Gen Z. I see the modern culture of youth to be this anxiety-ridden, phone-addicted trudge to college. Ugh. It's basically counterculture for a teenager to have a healthy work-life balance. And how is that going to miraculously change when they're older? 

10. Self-Compassion (2018) by Kristin Neff

For the final pick, I got to go with Self-Compassion. It edges out a bunch of books that I also recommend, including Digital Minimalism (2019) by Cal Newport, The Selection (2012) by Kiera Cass (a rare YA read and recommend from me), Play (2009) by Stuart Brown and Revolutionary Wealth (2006) by Heidi and Alvin Toffler.

As sad is it might sound, I never even knew self-compassion to be a concept until recently, and I see it as vital to one's health and to how one treats others. How can we truly be kind to others if we're not kind to ourselves?

Perhaps I grew up to understand that selfishness was bad and we should do our best to help others. Unfortunately, how we treat ourselves got lost in the shuffle for me. Self-care is huge nowadays in schools, and I agree that it's hugely important for educators and students. However, I see self-compassion as a precursor to self-care, and I believe we owe it to ourselves — and others around us — to treat ourselves with kindness. 

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