I couldn’t think of enough books to do a Stranger than Fiction post last week (though Tunnel 29 would have been at the top of the list), but I’m back for this week’s Nonfiction November theme of “Worldview Changers”. I tend to think that our worldviews evolve slowly, so singling out a few books that had a discernable impact on my worldview was challenging. Books that are too preachy tend to wind me up, so I couldn’t think of any books that are specifically designed to be worldview changers – outside of Christian nonfiction, I tend to steer clear of them. Instead, what I’ve tried to do is come up with a few books that I read in my twenties as I was learning about how to live alone, how to look after my flat, how to be a nurse, how to be a postgraduate student etc – I feel all like these books shaped my worldview implicitly.
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. This lovely essay collection about cooking and eating alone was a much-valued companion as I moved in by myself after living in student housing for three years. It’s not all strictly nonfiction, as there are one or two short stories, but it’s mostly essays. I still think back to the essay about someone (Laurie Colwin?) hosting friends in her tiny New York studio flat for the first time – I referenced it constantly as I was getting over my nerves around cooking for friends. This book really helped me to see cooking and eating alone as a privilege and a mark of independence, not a lonely activity, and I’m very grateful for that.
How to Get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors by Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh. This is a classic of doctoral student life, inevitably recommended by senior PhD students to the newbies just joining the office/lab. There’s something in it for everyone. For my part, I found the sections on managing your supervisor and notetaking in sessions most helpful, but for people who are completing a PhD mid-career there are sections on readjusting to student life, and for international students there is a chapter that is basically “an intro to UK higher education, culturally and structurally”. Invaluable if you are embarking on doctoral studies!
Raised Right: How I untangled my faith from politics by Alisa Harris. Although churches in the UK do not typically get involved in politics in the same way that they do in the US, where Harris is from, the church where I grew up was a bit more Bible Belt-y than is typical for the UK. One of the things I had to do once I moved to a new town was work out what I myself believe about a whole array of issues. This is the case for everyone, of course, whether you grow up in a staunchly atheist or a deeply devout home, or somewhere in between – but because Harris’s experiences were in some ways similar to mine (though hers were much more extreme), I found this a very useful and interesting read.
The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right by Atul Gawande. I’ve already mentioned this this month, in the context of books that I regularly recommend to my students, but it’s also one of the most useful project management texts I’ve ever read. I still refer to it when I’m troubleshooting a project at work that isn’t going to plan – and as I slowly start to make mentoring and perhaps management a part of my role going forward, I expect I will refer to it again as there are good tips in here about managing team as well as individual projects. (Also, if anyone has any recommendations for readable books on people management, I’m all ears!)
Lab Girl: A story of trees, science, and love by Hope Jahren. This memoir by botany professor Hope Jahren focuses on her experiences making a career in science at a time when it was much more difficult for women, and on her relationship with her best friend and scientific collaborator Bill. Although it seems like books about friendships have been more popular in recent years, when I first read this it was still quite a rarity to find one – especially one like this about a non-romantic relationship between a man and a woman. I read this towards the start of my PhD studies, and her excitement and enthusiasm for discovery was infectious along with the pleasure of reading about their friendship.
The Four Loves by CS Lewis. A little like Lab Girl, I loved this book for taking friendship so seriously. There are quotes in this that, even though I haven’t picked it up for years, I know almost by heart. I have read and loved most of Lewis’s Christian work (with the important caveat that he says a lot of quite ridiculous things about women in the early part of it), but this is probably my favourite. His famous quote that “to love at all is to be vulnerable” is the highlight of the book for me – but I often see that quote out of context as it floats around the internet. It is pretty meaningless divorced from what is essentially a thesis-length argument that loving other people is worth the fact that they will at some point break your heart. In fact, writing up this post has made me think that it might be time for me to revisit The Four Loves! A real favourite of my early twenties – I wonder what I will make of it a decade on.
There you have it! I’m not sure if these are worldview shapers, exactly, but although our worldviews are always evolving and changing, mine was doing so quite rapidly at this point, especially the first couple of years after I finished my undergrad degree, and these books were my valuable companions during that process. I hope that qualifies them for inclusion in this week’s topic!
I loved how you ended up approaching this, challenging as it was! The idea of what was important to you when you were in a formative time is really interesting and immediately made me think of that early twenties time for myself and what shaped me then. Such a great take on this!
You put Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant on my list a couple of years ago on Nonfiction November and I STILL haven’t gotten to it! I don’t know how it keeps getting delayed because I couldn’t be more excited for that topic. Colwin does have an essay about cooking for her friends in her tiny NYC apartment and it’s a delight, I think that must be the one you meant.
I’ve been meaning to get to Lab Girl for a long time too, and recently grabbed a copy at a library giveaway, so hopefully soon. I didn’t know that a big part of it was about a platonic friendship, that sounds appealing!
Thank you! That early 20s time is so formative for so many people and I love hearing about books that were important to people at particular times in their lives, so I thought I’d give it a go. Glad it worked!
I hope you enjoy both Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant and Lab Girl when you get to them!
I really enjoyed this Lou (or should I call you Loulou?) Such lovely personal reflections, but I did like this in the CS Lewis one, “I often see that quote out of context as it floats around the internet. It is pretty meaningless divorced from what is essentially a thesis-length argument that loving other people is worth the fact that they will at some point break your heart.” I liked it for two reasons – one, the fact that quotes float around out of context (happens all the time to Austen) and the actual quote which is so true. I have a very very dear friend, but I know we have both broken each other’s hearts once or twice, but our bond is strong that it has survived those occasions.
It’s a long time since I’ve had to worry about people management, but at one stage my work included buying management films for a film lending library, so I saw many theories, but one (I think I remember this correctly) featured Robert Townsend from AVIS, who wrote Up the organisation. He had some really basic humane practices, and I think (that is I think this came from him) one of his little mantras was “management by walking around” by which he meant, get out of your offices and go talk to the people on your team – regularly. It’s something I always did and I realise now that I’d forgotten all about the fact that it must have come from him! This is simple stuff – but that basic idea of showing interest in your team and keeping in touch with them can ward off so many problems. I suspect though that many of his ideas, as I remember them, for making your work more efficient so you COULD spend time walking around, come from the pre-technology/computer age and may be hard to apply. One I loved was: when you get a letter (which of course you don’t get now because it’s all email) don’t write/type out a reply. Photocopy it, write your reply on the photocopy and send it straight back! So much faster than in those days when we’d write our response, give it to a typist who would type it and give it back to us to proofread, and then perhaps get it back again from us to retype because something was wrong and then eventually put it in the envelope, mail it …
Thank you! Yes, quotes making the rounds without context happens all the time. I remember a few years ago when Jane Austen was put on one of our banknotes, the quote put alongside her picture was something like “there is no enjoyment like reading”, which is actually something Caroline Bingley says to impress Darcy and not her genuine opinion at all! The person in charge had clearly just googled “Jane Austen reading quotes” and picked the first one.
Thank you for the recommendation! Yes, that’s one of the things I’ve noticed that my own boss does a lot – she’s in a different part of the building but comes in to say hi to us every morning and often has lunch with us as well, which is a good way to take the temperature of the team without needing to be terribly formal about it. Apparently there’s a recent edition of Up the Organisation so maybe that will have some of the same advice but applied to the current working environment!
Ha halo, I was given a pendant with that quote by a friend. When people ask about it, it gives me a great opportunity to talk about Jane! And it does work well on the surface – but putting it on your note feels inappropriate and ignorant.
An interesting selection! I’d find it impossible to put together a list like this, because I so rarely read this type of non-fiction. You have me wondering what I used as alternatives when I was forming my own opinions way back when. Hmm. Anyway, on the subject of good books for managers, again I haven’t read many, but I did find The One-Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard helpful when I was starting out. From memory it’s concise, which is always a bonus, and wasn’t full of complex techniques. In short, it suggested that managers should spend far less time (and angst) on people management than we tend to – the idea being that a sentence of praise or criticism or direction is as effective, or more so, than an hour-long discussion. Not always true, perhaps, but I found it to be true more often than not. Many years since I read it so I’m sure there was more to it than that, though! 😉
I used to read much more of this type of nonfiction in this stage of my life – now it’s mostly history and science with a bit of memoir.
Thanks for the recommendation – I looked it up and it does look concise, which as you say is already a point in its favour!
Lou, remind me: did you end up rereading Lab Girl with my mom and me? She and I are talking and she says no and I said yes because I remember you mentioning that the author’s experience with blood bags really getting under your skin.
My husband is a project manager. I’ll ask him for more book recommendations and get back to you.
I did read it with you! And yes, I got very bored/frustrated reading two pages of detailed instructions on how to draw up IV drugs, something I’m already very familiar with. (And a bit horrified that someone totally untrained was being allowed to do it – different times, I guess).
Ah ha! I win that conversation with Biscuit, lol.
What a great post! The Four Loves was a big influence on me too and there are many quotes in it that I still think of often. Now I want to re-read it!
It’s such a great book! I think I gave my copy up in a house move a few years ago but I definitely want to reread it now.
Worth re-purchasing, I’d say!