You probably come from the West or Europe and if that’s the
case you have a particular view of the world, a view that you were taught from
an early age in school. This world view would have been reinforced as the truth
and the objective narrative of the world and its history.
But there is another view you need to consider and that is
set out in ‘The Silk Roads-a New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan. Frankopan
is professor of global history at Oxford and after reading his book you will
look at the world differently and, hopefully, with greater understanding.
You will see, for example, that from time immemorial the
West has sought to exploit the Middle East for its resources, especially oil,
and your view of the middle east, religious fundamentalism, terrorism is bound
to be altered and given a wholly different context.
The Silk Roads refers to the network of roads from the East
to the West on which silk, spices, and other goods were transported from the East
to the West and the subsequent creation of empires along those routes.
The Silk Roads goes a long way to explaining how the new
silk roads are beginning to re-emerge with the growth of China and Asia.
This book is accessible yet comprehensive and is well worth
the time spent to get a greater understanding of the world as it is now and how
it has come about through the impact of trading and the silk roads.
There is a description of working down the coal mines in 19th
century northern France in “Germinal” by Emile Zola that painted a claustrophobic,
vivid picture in my mind as I read this book. “Germinal” is set in the late
1800s in Northern France and describes the appalling conditions that the
working class found itself in under Napoleon III.
It is about the struggle for life, the struggle of the
working class for bread and better conditions, and the shocking inequality in
French society that eventually bubbled up into revolution.
Why I would recommend this book, however, is because it is beautifully
written, easy to read and accessible, and gives a view of life from the
perspective of Emile Zola, one of the finest writers in any language.
It forms part of a series of books written by Zola: the Rougon-Macquart
series, which he subtitled: “A Natural and Social History of a Family
under the Second Empire”.
This was the first Zola book I ever read and the description
of working down the coal mines reminded me again of how lucky I am to be making
a living as a solicitor and working in safe, dry conditions.
I have read “Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger twice. The
first time I had wondered what all the fuss had been about; the second time, I
This is a book which I would describe as achingly beautiful
because of the voice of the narrator, Holden Caulfied.
I would also say it is about “phonies” in a superficial
society, teenage angst, and looks at the world over a couple of December days
in New York in the 1950s through the eyes of the 16 year old narrator in an
easy to read, laconic style.
The title “Catcher in the Rye” is probably a metaphor for
helping adolescents from ‘falling off a cliff’ as they enter adulthood and
Holden Caulfield saw himself as a ‘catcher in the rye’ but accepted he could
not save everyone and that each individual must “If they want to grab for the
gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off,
they fall off”.
This book is incredibly easy to read due to its style of
narration and is worth returning to again and again.
A book that would definitely be on my top 5 list is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
Frankl was an Austrian Jew, a psychiatrist, who was sent to the concentration camps with his family during the second world war. Frankl saw his wife and children, including his unborn child, go to the gas chambers to be murdered by the Nazis.
But Frankl survived, and started a successful psychiatric practice in New York when the war was over.
Frankl noticed in the camps that the people who dealt best with the hell like conditions were those who helped others and gave away their last piece of bread.
If there is only one lesson my children take from this book it is that you cannot choose your circumstances/conditions but you can choose how you respond to them.
This is such an invaluable lesson for life, one that can be put into practice in our lives every single day.
If this is the only thing, and it won’t be, that a reader takes from this book it will be worth the time taken to read it.
The first book I would have on my list of recommended books
for my children to read is “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens.
This book is essentially about the legal system in England
in the 19th century and Dickens likens the legal system, of which he
had practical experience and a dim view, to fog.
In the first chapter he opens up
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look. The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery,…
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House . Kindle Edition.
What a description-can you picture yourself standing on the
footpath seeing that scene?
But I could recommend any Dickens book to my children and
hope that they would persevere long enough to recognise the genius of the
writer, for if they do a lifetime of enjoyable reading opens up to them like an
I could have recommended “Oliver Twist”, “Hard Times”, “Dombey
and Sons”, “A Christmas Carol”, or any Dickens book. Regardless of where they
would start their Dickens journey, however, it is a journey well worth
travelling as his books paint a remarkable picture of 19th century
England and each book deals with a grander social issue, for example the
exploitation of child labour in Oliver Twist or the class system and the place
of women in society in “Dombey and Sons”.
I view “Dombey and Sons” as one of the earliest feminist novels and a remarkable portrayal of pride in Mr Dombey.
In conclusion, I would say, “read Dickens, anything by Dickens”.
Scanning through my Kindle to remind myself of the large
number of books I have read over the last two years or thereabouts two things
The subject matter of these books ranges extensively, from marketing to business to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to Gogol to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and Ross McDonald, to self help and mind management and philosophy and law and social media and video marketing to world war two, to productivity and stress and time management;
The quality and worth oscillates widely.
The question popped into my head as to what books I would
recommend to my children, given that I strongly believe it is a good thing that
they develop a reading habit, something that is under increasing pressure from
other attention grabbing distractions in society.
I could give them a huge list but will confine my choice to five
books and will recognise the need to strike a balance between encouraging the
habit of reading, by picking books that are accessible and easy to digest, and
quality books-that is, authors that might on first reading be difficult going
but like any acquired taste prove to be invaluable and be from authors to whom
they will return again and again over the course of a lifetime.
I will also include a non fiction or two which should help
them through life by giving them tools for dealing with the stresses of life as
So, come back tomorrow for the list which is deserving of its own blog post.
A petite mother of 4 from Eastern Europe prompted me to
write this article.
I have been meaning, for some time, to write about the benefits
to be derived from reading books.
I am a voracious reader and always have at least two books
on the go-one on my Kindle and one audiobook on my Audible app.
Until I met Kasia I was going to argue that one of the great
benefits of reading is you can learn from the mistakes, learnings, and
experience of others. Others who may have had completely different experiences,
or others who had similar experiences to you, or who had trod a path you wish
to travel on.
The lessons you can learn from great historical figures,
from autobiographies of men and women who have fought and won and lost great
struggles, from ordinary people who have faced and fought enormous personal
challenges, from geniuses, from deeply flawed individuals are of immense value.
Starting a business, a political movement, trying to effect change,
change the law, practice law-no matter what your task of passion is you can
learn from the mistakes of the others. The others who walked that path before you.
Back to Kasia, though.
I am listening to the Tattooist
of Auschwitz on Audible at the moment. It is a fabulous, uplifting, inspiring
true story of a Jewish man, Lale Sokolov from Slovakia, who was forced to work
as the Tattooist in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world
What is inspiring about the book is the number of incidences
of people showing kindness and love to their fellow inmates in the most
appalling circumstances you could possibly imagine. It is difficult not to
imagine yourself in such a situation and wondering whether you would behave with
the same dignity and nobility and kindness as some of the characters, including
Lale, in the book.
I will never have to worry about the answer to this question,
But it was a question that was in the back of my mind when
Kasia came into my office unannounced. She wanted help with an application to
the Student Universal Support Ireland [SUSI] on behalf of one of her children.
My first reaction was to tell her she needed an appointment.
But my next reaction was to ask ‘what would Lale do in this
situation?’ What was that I read in the Tattooist about Lale trading jewellery and
cash taken from dead prisoners sent to the gas chambers for food which he then
distributed to the most needy.
And the answer was obvious: he would have helped her.
I’m glad to say I did, too. I’m no angel, no Mother Teresa but
I was pleased I did the right thing. I tried to help her.
It turned out her husband had left her, and she was looking
after the children on her own. And the first child had done well enough in the leaving
certificate to be awarded a place in third level education. She needed help
with the SUSI grant.
You can find many things in books: lessons, truth, ugliness,
beauty. The reasons for reading books on a consistent basis are, to my mind, so
self-evident as to not warrant explanation.
But listening to the Tatooist of Auschwitz and Kasia
walking into my office in the same week gave me another illustration, if any
was needed, of the stunning power of books and the lessons to be learned if you
are open to them.
I’m a firm believer in the immense value of reading and I’m not sure I can recall any book, no matter how poor, from which I have not learned something. I’m reading the definitive Sherlock Holmes collection at the moment and, surprisingly, I have come across a few unexpected gems.
In the ‘Sign of the Four’, for example, Holmes tells Dr. Watson that he has a ‘peculiar constitution’ in that he can work prodigiously without getting tired but what causes him tiredness is ‘idleness’.
I know what he means for I have the same inclination myself-it is seldom work itself that causes me fatigue but boredom and ‘idleness’ as Holmes describes it.
At the beginning of the book we encounter Dr. Watson observing Holmes injecting himself with cocaine. Holmes explains that when he has a riddle or mystery to solve his mind is occupied and pleasingly engaged. But when he has no riddle to solve he turns to cocaine for stimulation.
I was never a huge Sherlock Holmes fan but my opinion is being altered by a small number of unexpected but astute observations in each of Conan Doyle’s novels I have read to date (a ‘Study in Scarlet’ and the ‘Sign of the Four’).
From time to time I fantasise about writing blog posts in
the style of Dickens or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
I write a good deal of content for consumption by people on
the internet who have limited, and narrowing, attention spans.
To counter this I have employed a technique which writers
for the internet, bloggers, and content marketers are advised to use. This
involves short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and lots of white
One of the objectives of this technique is to make the content
as snackable and accessible as possible. And I know it works because people frequently
tell me they love reading my stuff, that I make it easy to read and understand,
and so forth.
This is not an accident for this is precisely what I set out
But sometimes I dream about writing a blog post in one or
two long sentences-in the style of Charles Dickens, for example.
And I imagine throwing in words that are not short and
simple and have only one syllable. But words that are difficult, obscure, rarely
used but appropriate for the situation. Words and phrases like ‘dissipation’, ‘urbanity’,
‘agreeable’, ‘disagreeable’, ‘displeasure’, ‘much engaged’, ‘prodigiously’, ‘melancholy’,
‘admonition’, ‘withering scorn’, ‘much occupied by his sagacity’, ‘unreserved
intimacy’, ‘unquiet spirit’, and so forth.
Maybe one day, for the sheer hell of it, I will ‘fall to
prodigiously’ and break loose.