A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (1997)

a place own cover pollan

“What is a place after all but a bit of space that people have invested with meaning?” (38)

In this book, the outstanding non-fiction writer and journalist Michael Pollan has created a completely unique piece of work: one that is part memoir, part how-to, and part complex cultural commentary about the abstraction that we call “place.” The novel chronicles the author’s efforts to design and build — by himself — a cottage in which he can conduct his work as a writer. Along the way, Pollan educates himself — and all of us — on the various disciplines that inform our ideas about place, home, and ownership; including discussions of history, geology, geography, science, architecture, sociology, literature, and carpentry…to name just a few. The resulting book is a rich, in-depth discussion about our place in the world and the places in the world that we attempt to make our own.

At the start of the book, the author lays out his reasons for wanting a work space that is wholly separate from his living space. “A room of one’s own,” he argues, allows for privacy, solitude, and freedom from interruption — all elements that he deems essential for daydreaming, daydreaming being the heart of all creative work. By carving a space from himself away from his home, rather than in it, he seeks to gain an entirely different perspective on the place he calls home. Pollan’s decides to build the house on his own (with one helper) in order to meet a need he has to build something that will exist in the physical world, not just the intellectual one. He longs to do “work that involves very little intellect, but all the senses. It reminded me just how much reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote to abstraction.” (25)

The idea of abstractions versus concrete realities runs throughout the book and offers readers an examination of the physical act of building a place, as well as a dissection of its emotional and cultural importance of trying to lay claim to a piece of the earth. Pollan discusses building codes as well as daydreams; the realities of weather, soil, and climate versus the desire to build a place that suits our whims regardless of its practicality; or even the abstraction of “lumber” that allows him to separate himself from the discomfort of cutting down living trees to meet his needs. The greatest contradiction, though, comes from Pollan’s ruminations about whether any piece of land can ever really be considered ours, or whether it is on loan from nature, and who may reassert her claim at any time.

When we lay claim to an area, and call it “ours” we suddenly infuse that place with a tremendous amount of meaning. Far beyond just ground, air, light, and plants; our “place” comes to represent our goals, dreams, ideals, and our sense of ownership of a piece of the earth. While it may be just a cottage on one level, it is also a place of refuge, safety, comfort, wealth, and a place that tells the world the work you conduct there is completely your own.

“Houses only comes into their own in bad weather, when the poetry of shelter reaches its fullest expression…’I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.'” (18)


Quiet by Susan Cain (2012)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

quiet cover

In this fantastic and immensely informative book, Susan Cain introduces readers to the historical, social, psychological, and scientific aspects of the introvert-extrovert dichotomy and offers in-depth explanation about why the distinction is important for everyone to understand. Cain uses a wide breadth of research-based examples to demonstrate that introverts are not a personality subgroup that is less than or lacking in comparison to extroverts; but rather they are a group of people who have a unique and equally important set of skills and strengths that they offer the world. Introverts should be included, not forced to convert or conform, in decisions about how to design our classrooms, workplaces, and relationships.

Cain argues that beginning at the start of the 20th century, the long-valued character strengths of commitment, reliability, determination, and long-term goal setting began to give way to a “new” model of the ideal American: loud, outgoing, talkative, aggressive, comfortable with strangers or crowds, and quick to make choices. In other words: an extrovert. These skills allowed Americans living during the enormous changes of the Industrial revolution — including the rise of corporations, mass immigration to cities, decrease in work in single pursuits (farming, shop-keeping) in favor of working for large businesses — and workers who exemplified these new ideals were better suited to succeed in 20th century versions of education, business, and social life.

The worship of extroversion, and the demonization of introversion, soon had transformed education, advertising, religion, and psychology and even pediatrics. Quiet, reflective, people (especially children) who took time to make decisions, preferred to single-task, and needed quiet time away from others were seen as lacking and needed to be forced to change. As the century unfolded, American culture began to more and more reward extroverts and demand that introvert learn to “fake” skills of extroversion or accept lesser social and professional success. As of result, more than one hundred years later, the skills associated with extroversion have become the skills that represent “universal success.” It is has become widely accepted that louder, more outgoing, more assertive people are the ideal workers and partners.

Cain’s book seeks to transform that idea. She offers evidence that introverts, with their more subtle skills — long-range planning, aversion to risk, contemplative problem solving, and comfort with delayed gratification — can, if allowed to flourish, transform businesses, classrooms, research labs, and even personal relationships. Offering examples of well-known but successful introverts — Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein — and presenting fascinating new research from social science, psychiatry, and neurobiology; Cain presents an alternative way of viewing the traits of introversion; she offers examples of ways that introverts are a valuable resource in all areas of life; and she even offers concrete ways that introverts can set up their environment for success…and ways that the world can better accommodate introverts.

You can find Susan Cain’s wildly popular TED talk about her research into Introverts here: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts

You can hear the author interviewed on the March 8, 2017 episode of Happier here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-107-happier-susan-cain/


Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

What is Creativity? It is the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

This latest work of nonfiction from Elizabeth Gilbert is less of a book and more of a manifesto, a call to arms, an urgent plea that we all make room in our lives for our creative spirits to thrive. Gilbert, of course, is famous for her book Eat, Pray, Love which seems to be equally loved and hated by audiences. I fall in with the readers who loved the book, her writing style, and the things she had to say — quite eloquently, I thought — about living life.

This new book is not a memoir, nor is it a self-help book, but rather is comes to us more as a motivational tome: you can do it, Gilbert is cheering, I believe that you have something magical inside you waiting to break through! In the introductions she writes, “the universe buries strange jewels deep within in us all to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels — that is creative living. And the often surprising results of that hunt — that is what I call Big Magic.”

Creative powers are at work inside all of us, Gilbert argues, we are all called to do or make something unique and beautiful. It is not a lack of inspiration or talent that stops so many of us but rather busyness or obstinance or fear getting in the way of listening to the call. What we might feel drawn to make or do is not narrowly defined either. The author in no way suggests that only “art” in the traditional sense, such writing or painting, should be pursued. Her expansive list of examples of art waiting to be created include: writing songs, making candles, shaping pottery, decorating a beautiful home, starting a nonprofit, choreographing dances, farming a piece of land, writing a sermon.

There are no check-lists in this book nor bulleted “to-do” suggestion boxes, only a series of inspirations that show us that magic — the ability to make something wholly of ourselves to present to the world — is already alive inside us. We are capable of creating if we only try. Never once is it suggested that you must discard your life, wiping it clean, to begin again as a “pure artist.” Quite the opposite is proposed: humbly attempt something new, find something that moves you and calls to you and actively pursue it. That is it, simply answer the call. An entirely new life is not required, but taking action — however small — is required: take the time to jot down a poem on a grocery list, finally plant a garden, take a class, prepare a gourmet meal, perfect you clog dancing, rediscover a beloved pastime long ago discarded.

As we pursue a life filled with more creativity and magic, we are never to feel tortured, never to feel beleaguered or doomed when our attempts fail. Instead Gilbert wants us to feel joyful that inspiration has paid us a visit and proud of our courageous attempts to do something we have not tried before. We made not receive accolades or celebrity, but we have reached for the bigger life and that is its own reward.

Personally, I felt I took a huge leap starting this blog. It represented the most writing I had done in years and it required that I do something that felt very intimate to me… sharing my thoughts about books I dearly love with a world that may not love them at all. I was fearful of many of the things Gilbert mentions in the book: that I had nothing original to say, that there were already many, many other blogs about books being written, and that my opinions about books were not learned or expert enough. I cannot tell you how glad I am that I ignored all of those concerns! Writing this blog is never a chore, it is a total joy. Now while reading I think even deeper about the meanings and messages of the books I love, getting more than ever from my beloved pastime. “Take your insecurities and fears and hold them upside down by their ankles and shake yourself free off all your cumbersome ideas about what you require and why you are not enough. You are already creatively legitimate by nature of your mere existence.”

The gorgeous book is like a hand being extended to us all. “You are already a creator, you do not need permission, you are perfectly capable right now of finding your own buried treasures” the author tells us. Gilbert is a kindly advisor urging us to make peace with our fears and accept that failure will not kill us. We must welcome and befriend the ideas that inspire us and to stay the course while we create something bigger with those ideas. “A creative life is a life that is amplified, bigger, happier, expanded, and interesting,” she tells us, “a life that is more strongly driven by curiosity than by fear.” There is never any need to operate from a notion of scarcity or give credence to the belief that there is not enough to go around, there are boundless works of art waiting to be born and everyone is an artist capable to gifting that art to the world. The question is not can you live a creative life, but rather “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden inside you?”