Did you get an Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas? Here's a couple books that I have just loved this year.
Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
Given the success Apple has had, especially in the last 10 years, the excitement surrounding this book has been immense. Jobs has been painted post-mortem as our technological saint, the next Thomas Edison. What's interesting in reading the book is how flawed and complicated a man he was. He was a Zen Buddhist who could be incredibly cruel to people, especially his friends and coworkers; a child abandoned by his birth parents who then did the same to his firstborn; a boss known to distort reality to fit his needs, whose products ended up completely changing our reality.
Reading this book was also like discovering another perspective on my own life history. The first computer my family had when I was a kid was an Apple IIe. In the 90s it was the iMac that got me making short movies (iMovie was such an easy program to use). Working at America Magazine I had an Apple computer that I absolutely loved, not just for what it could do, but for the design of it (which reading the book you discover is such an important part of Jobs' vision). And on and on.
Desperate Networks, Bill Carter
This year one of my profs asked us to read this book, which undertakes to tell the story of what happened to the main TV networks in the late 90s and early 2000s, how CBS went from worst to first, ABC got a new lease on life, NBC tanked and FOX rode reality TV to new heights (and depths). It's written by a New York Times reporter with a fantastic flair for storytelling and a surprising amount of access to hundreds of the main players. You hear the whole story of how a little known writer on Golden Girls, after many years and much struggle, ended up selling Desperate Housewives; of how NBC created its Thursday night juggernaut block of Must See TV; of the rise of reality TV; of CSI, Friends, Lost, American Idol, Survivor, Seinfeld, the Today Show and on and on. In its own way it's very dramatic and a real page turner. Like Steve Jobs, it's the kind of book that takes something so familiar to us as to be unseen, our TV shows, and lays bare a whole other side to them.
The Hunger Games (3 vols.), Susan Collins
Imagine that the United States had another civil war tomorrow. And in the end, one small piece of the country won, and rather than bring everything back to the way it has been, a United States, it decided to rule over the rest of the country. And every year, as a way of reinforcing its own power and keeping everyone else down, it would hold a lottery that chose two children, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 sections of the new country, to compete in a televised Survivor-like tournament to the death.
That's the premise of the Hunger Games. When I first heard about it I thought it sounded way too grim and teen to be of interest to me. But last summer I started the first one, and it was so compelling. It's not anywhere near as violent as what it could have been, and the lead character, a teenage girl named Katniss who is the sole breadwinner for her family when she is conscripted into the Games, was just so broken and flawed and fierce, it was impossible to turn away. A story at root of endurance, self-sacrifice and love in a difficult world.
Awareness, Anthony DeMello, S.J.
Tony DeMello was an Indian Jesuit who specialized in Eastern spirituality. He was known for preached retreats he gave all over the world and for books of wonderful little Zen stories.
I'm not sure how I got put on to Awareness, but I must say, I have profited from it immensely. DeMello's main point is this: You and I and everyone around is at least half-asleep, in denial of the truths of their own lives (like our own sinfulness), of what's really important. And that's fine, in a way; DeMello is pretty insistent that you can't wake someone else up, and that he's not there to judge. But if you want to wake up, you need to start paying better attention to yourself, and to cut everyone else a break (because you're just as bad as they are).
I'm probably making the book sound more aggressive and confrontational than it is; DeMello can be quite playful and kind. But as I slowly work my way through it I find its short chapters, I'm finding it a great source of insight into my life, an invitation into much greater freedom and forgiveness. I highly recommend it.