In 1993 author Peter James caused a global outrage when he published his thriller Host on two floppy disks. The first “electronic novel,” which is about a scientist who downloads his brain into a computer and has his body frozen, was considered the beginning of the end of literature as we know it, not because of its plot, but because it was thought to be a sign that printed books would soon join clay tablets as relics of our technologically primitive past.
Fortunately predictions about the book apocalypse have not yet manifested and when it comes to my endless pursuit for the latest health and wellbeing knowledge, I’m still able to readily access great books (although ironically Host became a historical artifact in the UK Science Museum.)
As a published author, I know something of the long hours of despair and doubt that go into not only researching a non-fiction book, but also writing and rewriting in order to make it engaging. More often than not the exercise is the opposite of lucrative, so in the interest of supporting some of my fellow writers, here are five books I’ve read this year that have informed, inspired and left a lasting impression on me in 2020.
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
By Johann Hari
I first learned of Johann Hari’s work after the publication of his widely-acclaimed book Lost Connections, which offers new insight into the biological, psychological and social causes of depression. (Read my review here.) Like me, Hari is a self-funded journalist who travels the globe in pursuit of telling stories in order to make an impact on social issues. So when I learned that a screen play adaptation of his first book, Chasing the Scream is now tipped as an Oscars contender, my curiosity was piqued.
In Chasing the Scream Hari recalls one of his earliest memories; trying to wake up one of his relatives and not being able to, and subsequently travels 30,000 kilometres around the world in pursuit of a solutions to drug addiction. In his signature, heartfelt style, Hari argues that people with drug addictions should be treated with dignity rather than as criminals. He delves into the history and impact of drug criminalisation, and recounts the moving tales of those impacted, from a besieged Billie Holliday who, by Hari’s retelling, was hounded to her death by a punitive law-enforcement zealot, to a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn.
Hari does have his critics, from those who feel he hasn’t given enough space to experts who disagree with his thesis, to others who cannot forgive his past transgressions, but nevertheless Chasing the Scream is powerful contribution to a necessary conversation that we need to have about an evidence-based and compassionate approach to drug addiction prevention, treatment and cure.
Eat Like the Animals: What nature tells us about the science of healthy eating
By Dr David Raubenheimer, Dr Stephen J. Simpson
My Summary – Indiana Jones meets game changing science in a book which offers a completely new way of thinking about healthy eating.
I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I’ve done with diet experts. From macronutrients to micronutrients, to the gut microbiome and fasting, from what we can do to eat better despite the obstacles to why junk food is so hard to resist; so I thought I was across the broad brush strokes on pretty much every hot button nutritional topic being investigated by scientists. That was until I read Eat Like the Animals, and realised that as the Wildling character Ygritte from George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones says, “You know nothing Jon Snow.”
This book reads like an adventure novel, as Professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson from Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre, recount their global adventures from the urban fringes of Capetown to the swamp forests of Borneo, and how they uncovered that most living organisms know instinctively how to balance their diet.
Despite being about food and nutrition, this is not another fad diet book and you won’t find a sales pitch for the latest eight-week program subversively hidden in its pages. Rather, Raubenheimer and Simpson offer a fresh new way of thinking about what drives our appetite and what that means for human health.
The scientists began their careers studying the eating habits of insects and developed their Protein Leverage Hypothesis after discovering that locusts continue eating, sometimes in carnivorous plague proportions, until they’ve consumed a minimum amount of protein. After studying 40 different animals species, they now believe that most animals, even we humans, eat too many fats and carbs not because our appetites for these macro nutrients are stronger, but because our appetite for protein is strongest of all. The theory is that if protein is diluted in our food supply (a la nutritionally empty processed food), we overeat until we satiate our protein appetite. The implications for solving the obesity epidemic are game changing.
I laughed out loud many times while reading Eat Like the Animals (...a calorie is after all a handy measurement for working out how much food it takes to heat a bathtub) and felt constantly curious, until, in the end, I was overcome with a surge of motivation to raise more awareness about the role of ultra-processed food in fueling our entirely preventable chronic disease epidemic.
How Healing Works: Get Well and Stay Well Using Your Hidden Power to Heal
By Wayne Jonas
My Summary – If you enjoyed my film The Connection, you will likely love this book.
Given that I’ve now made two feature films and written two books which essentially explore the latest science revealing the connection between our mind, body and health,
I can’t believe I’ve only just come across the 2018 book, How Healing Works.
The book’s author, Dr. Wayne Jonas, has a fascinating background. He was a lieutenant colonel in the medical corps of the United States army and director of the holistic branch of the National Institute of Health before spear heading a significant body of research investigating the efficacy of alternative therapies as the CEO of The Samueli Institute. As such, the voice in this book is that of a uniquely open minded military man who’s on a genuine mission to put the care back into health.
In How Healing Works, Jonas explores the chasm between Western reductionist medicine and ancient healing practices, as well as the new science of the mind-body connection, including the importance of therapeutic encounters with our healthcare providers and how the world around us shapes our healing response.
Jonas writes with honesty and heartfelt sincerity about his failings and successes as a family physician trying to do right by his patients. It’s also clear that as a researcher he’s on a mission to contribute a meaningful body of research that isn’t underpinned by a reliance on drugs and surgery. In many ways, it’s as if Jonas has penned the doctor’s perceptive on my own 2017 book, The Whole Health Life, in which I outline my whole-person approach to living with an autoimmune disease.
Jonas isn’t without his critics because he dares to lend credibility to alternative therapy, but in an age where one in two people experience ongoing health issues, such as chronic pain, migraines, fatigue, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and depression, this book is an important contribution in our global efforts to find real solutions to the epidemic of chronic disease. The clear and important message is that we can change the way we approach healthcare and take more control of our own recovery and lasting wellbeing.
Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology
By Cal Newport
My Summary – A book about the all important “how” of using technology with more intention and purpose.
When the synopsis of Digital Minimalism promised that I’d never again mindlessly sacrifice my productivity to click bait or lose 40 minutes of my evening to my social media feed, I was immediately intrigued.
As I wrote in my recent review of the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, I have a small gripe with the movement working to disrupt Big Tech. Although their message is bang on – we do need to review and regulate the all-powerful mega platforms that have turned our attention into a lucrative commodity – my issue is that few of the “tips and tricks” being offered by the industry whistle blowers actually work. We’re told to delete our social media, ban our kids from screens, and turn off all notifications. But as a person living in the actual world, with kids being assigned app-based homework, with soccer team updates to monitor, with a career in the media, and the need to be able to readily access my email when I’m on the road producing documentaries, despite my best efforts, I constantly find myself getting sucked into click bait, busy work and brainless chatter.
In this book Newport, who is an Associate Professor at Georgetown University, outlines an unapologetic antidote to our digitally saturated environment – Digital Minimalism.
Although it felt at times that Newport was preaching to the choir and making a now well-worn case for cutting down on technological distractions and enjoying the benefits of an offline life, I appreciated his recognition that our efforts to turn off notifications, delete superfluous social media and observe “digital sabbaths” don't go far enough. He writes, “In my experience, gradually changing your habits one at a time doesn’t work well — the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started.”
Yup, that’s me.
Newport’s solution is to learn from the habits and daily actions of a growing community who thoughtfully and intentionally cultivate their own relationship with technology and advocate a "less is more" approach. Digital Minimalists decide, on their own terms, what technological tools to use, for what purposes, and under what conditions. Although I haven’t yet fully joined the minimalist movement, this book did encourage me to think deeply about my own philosophy for technology use – and the one I want to model to my kids.
The Man on the Mountaintop: An Audible Original Drama
By Susan Trott and adapted by Libby Spurrie
My Summary – Life wisdom packaged in the form of an entertaining audio play.
The fact that my final review is not of a physical book, but rather an audio adaption from Susan Trott's best-selling novels, The Holy Man and The Holy Man's Journey may very well unsettle the 1993 critics of Peter James’s electronic novel that I mentioned in my introduction. But as a busy mother with two young kids and a full time work load on my plate, the truth is, most of my “reading” time is done while I’m washing dishes, driving home and at the gym. I for one, am hugely grateful for the electronic literature revolution.
Regular readers will know that my latest journalistic deep dive involved committing to mindfulness meditation training every day for a year, so when my audio book subscription service offered me this audio play for free, I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did.
The Man on the Mountaintop tells the story of an unassuming 72-year-old Holy Man named Joe, who lives in a hermitage at the top of a mountain. Brought to life by a full cast (including Stanley Tucci who you might know from movies such as The Devil Wears Prada and The Hunger Games) and backed by original music and sound effects, the story is a series of simple parables told through the lens of people who are waiting in a long line to meet with Joe.
This is by no means a spiritual deep-dive, but if you’re after easy, uplifting, down-to-earth wisdom, mixed with delightful performances and an engaging story, you’ll enjoy this. Joe is a crafty trickster who teaches wisdom in unexpected ways.