The days are growing shorter, and the air is getting cooler—fall is upon us. As the trees change color and we enter the final months of 2021, consider picking up a new book to complement your free time. For Advisory Board’s fall reading list, our experts have harvested a wide-ranging list of seven recommendations on the experience of silence, self-acceptance through yoga, an examination of our mortality, and more. Below are their recommendations:
Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance by Jessamyn Stanley
Deirdre Saulet, Expert Partner
In Sanskrit, yoga means to "yoke" or to "unite." Personally, I started my yoga journey looking only for the physical benefits, trying to rehabilitate my body from decades of basketball-induced injuries. It is only now—eight years after regularly stepping onto my mat—that I am opening myself up to and starting to appreciate its mental and spiritual benefits. Truly, how yoga can "yoke" together these elements of my being.
This collection of essays by Jessamyn Stanley, who describes herself as fat, Black, and queer, resonated deeply with me, the journey I've taken, and some of the critical questions I've grappled with about what American yoga looks like (i.e., majority white and female). Her stories cover a wide range of introspective topics—from what it means to make American yoga more welcoming to cultural appropriation to accepting and appreciating our bodies. For anyone else looking to deepen their yoga practice or their understanding of themselves, I highly recommend this book. It even convinced me to sign up for a study of the Yoga Sutras this fall. Don't worry, I'll save that for review for next time.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
Dave Willis, Vice President, Research
Sagan's seminal work was first published a quarter-century ago, but as I reread it this summer I was struck at how relevant and prescient his commentary remains. The author argues passionately and convincingly that a more robust scientific education is not only achievable—in the same way that we expect every high school graduate to have a working knowledge of the English language and basic mathematics—but essential to human and societal progress.
Unfortunately, as 2021 has shown us, the reverse is also true. In light of the current challenges we face in combating misinformation about the risks and efficacy of vaccines, I find Sagan's prose to be enlightening and instructive. I highly recommend chapter two ("Science and Hope") and chapter fourteen ("Antiscience"). Read together, they provide deep insight into how antiscientific views flourish, and the risks that accompany them. With three-quarters of a million Americans dead from Covid-19, and some significant number of those deaths no-doubt preventable, those risks are all too apparent today. I can think of no greater obligation we have as parents, as health care professionals, and as citizens of a democracy than to ensure that succeeding generations are much more fluent in the scientific method.
Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge
Andrew Mohama, Senior Analyst
"Silence" could sell itself solely on the author's adventures, all of which have included the quest for total silence. Kagge is the first person to walk to the North Pole, the South Pole, and Mount Everest alone. Just before he was dropped off at the northern edge of Antarctica for his unassisted ski to the South Pole, Kagge tossed the batteries of an emergency radio in the garbage bin—intentionally choosing to spend the next 50 days and nights in utter solitude.
Through accounts of his own experiences and the reflections of poets, artists, and explorers, Kagge convinced me that silence is essential to our sanity and happiness—and showed me how it can open doors to wonder and gratitude. There is something quite satisfying about the simple structure of this book. It is divided up into 33 chapters, which are short reflections that seek to answer three core questions: What is silence? Where can it be found? Why is it now more important than ever?
Before reading this book, I didn't realize how much 'noise' was filling my days, both audibly and visibly. This book has had a deeply positive effect on my life, bringing back a sense of joy to previously passive experiences. I now read it annually. It always reminds me of the power of choosing silence while appreciating experiences that foster a sense of solitude. In fact, it inspired me to leave my headphones at home when I spent 16 hours biking on gravel roads across the state of Minnesota. But here's the thing: silence doesn't require massive adventures or travels far from home—just leave your phone and headphones behind the next time you go for a walk. And trust me, I know how hard it can be to not let the music of Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes complement your fall morning coffee walk, but there is something even better out there in the silence. I hope you find it.
I promise there is something in this book for everyone. And if you shrug at the idea of silence, well, this book is especially perfect for you. I hope you enjoy, and shoot me an email with your thoughts—I'd love to chat.
(Bonus: check out this hour-by-hour account of Kagge's adventure of New York in a way no one has ever experienced—underneath it. He essentially spent five days in the sewers below Manhattan.)
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
John League, Managing Director, Digital Health Research
This book starts with a real downer: "The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short." That average is about 4,000 weeks. Four thousand of anything seems like a lot, but as a 44-year-old, I've already used up more than half of those weeks.
Burkeman builds a mosaic of perspectives—including everyone from Nietszche to Danielle Steele to Carl Jung to Sam Harris—to explore, as he puts it, a "saner way" of relating to time than simply trying to maximize it, which he contends is a loser's game. The more we think about time as a resource, Burkeman posits, the more we trap ourselves in shallow devotion to a productivity cult where busy-ness is an ultimately empty measure of prestige.
Some of the solutions he recommends are seemingly obvious (though not easy): do one thing at a time and pay attention to every moment. Others are cunningly phrased and nearly subversive. Consider the "joy of missing out," as opposed to the much more popular "fear of missing out." Burkeman didn't invent this turn of phrase (which came from Caterina Fake), but his explanation has real resonance for me at a time when the tradeoffs I find myself making at work and with family are getting harder and harder. The joy of missing out comes when we acknowledge what we actively are not doing to enhance the lived experience of what we are doing.
As a bonus, I'd also recommend Burkeman's previous book, "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," which deserves a read for the title alone.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Lauren Woodrow, Analyst, Health Care Ecosystem Research
At just 14 years old, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, made the Russian people fall in love with her simply by getting sick. This young princess, now known as Catherine the Great, was freshly arrived in Moscow and desperate to succeed in her new home. The days were too short for the young princess and she began walking the halls alone at night, practicing the Russian language. In the drafty halls, Sophia quickly caught pneumonia and was confined to bed. But servants had seen her pacing the icy floors and whispers spread like wildfire that this young girl's devotion to Russia brought her close to death. Doubts about bringing a foreign princess to the Russian throne were quickly quelled.
I found this to be an absolutely fascinating read about a young woman whose brain and ambition led her to become one of the most powerful women in history. There's a lot to be said about Catherine the Great (namely about her promiscuity and some rumor about her and a horse…). She was by no means a faultless leader, but she led Russia through rebellion, war, and ushered in a new wave of cultural development.
What struck me the most throughout this biography, is just how acutely history repeats itself. In 1770, just about eight years into Catherine's reign, plague came to Russia. Catherine decreed emergency quarantine measures—banning theatrical performances, balls, and other large public gatherings. The enforcement of these medical precautions led to riots in Moscow, terrified crowds gathered to kiss icons in hopes of protection, causing these sites to become the deadliest centers of contagion…sound familiar?
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
Ben Palmer, Associate Editor, News Division
Let me start right off the bat by saying I don't love the title of this book because it sounds like two people trying to sell snake oil to lonely people, but let me assure you it very much is not.
Instead, this book examines the science of attachment theory as it applies to romantic relationships (which isn't so "new" anymore, since the book came out in 2010). Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, alongside Rachel S.F. Heller, a psychologist, take a look at how different people behave in relationships using attachment theory—a science that has been used since the 1950s to explain parent/child relationships.
Levine and Heller expand attachment theory to look at romantic relationships and determine there are three forms of attachment—anxious, avoidant, and secure.
Attached will not only help you figure out what kind of attachment you ascribe to and how to counteract unproductive defense mechanisms you may slip into without knowing it, but it will help you identify the ways other people behave.
This doesn't necessarily only apply to romantic relationships either—understanding the way friends, family members, and other loved ones attach themselves to the ones they love can give you a deeper understanding of how they work and why they do what they do.
And we could all use a bit more empathy in our lives, couldn't we?
Extra Life by Steven Johnson
Thomas Seay, Managing Director
Over the past century, the length of the average human life has doubled.
That's one of those sentences that stops me short whenever I think about it. Twice as much life. It's hard to think of a more remarkable, consequential development in human history. And yet if you'd asked me a few months ago what drove the increase, I would have struggled to tell you. Antibiotics? Sanitation? Something like that?
Then I read "Extra Life," in which Steven Johnson attempts to briefly explain the how and why.
If you've read Johnson's past books, you'll recognize some of his stories here about pivotal moments in public health. (He revisits, for instance, the 1854 cholera outbreak that he chronicled in "The Ghost Map.") Many of Johnson's heroes are scientists, physicians, or engineers—but even more of them are social and political leaders who won public buy-in for transformative ideas.
Still, my favorite parts of the book are when Johnson zooms out, seeking to identify the biggest-picture forces extending human lives.
In one especially eye-opening table, he sorts lifesaving innovations into three categories: those that have saved millions, hundreds of millions, and billions of lives. Viewed from this perspective, inventions such as AIDS cocktails, insulin, and pacemakers—indeed, most of what we think of as "medicine"—are small potatoes. What really mattered? Artificial fertilizer, toilets, and vaccines.
Johnson also forces his reader to confront the uncomfortable downsides of longer lifespans. For one thing, if humans today lived only as long as our ancestors, there wouldn't be enough of us on the planet to drive climate change.
Johnson's point isn't that we should go back to the bad old days of 40-year life expectancies, but rather that, as we seek to extend human life yet further, we'll have to confront all of the consequences of extra life—good and bad. It's mind-bending, perspective-altering stuff.
(By the way, if you want a taste of Johnson's approach before committing yourself to the full book, you can read a lengthy excerpt via the New York Times.)