It’s been a year of bizarre, unexpected surprises, both personally and politically. I spent a lot of time alone, reconnecting with my passions, reaquainting myself with old literary loves, and generally taking care of myself. Here are just a few books that helped me on my journey. All of them are masterpieces that yield new insights with repeated readings. Only one was published in 2016, but all of them are still in print and made me stronger as a person and as a man. They’ll do the same for you.
Just Kids by Patti Smith. The punk rock scene of which Patti Smith was a part didn’t really hit the Long Island suburbs where I grew up until the late 1970s, and by then it was over. I read her memoir last year partly to get caught up on what I missed, as well as to get a sense of Patti herself and the person she’s become since her days with Robert Mapplethorpe. Her descriptions of their life in the East Village are touching and bring to mind images of a New York that has utterly disappeared, as completely as the New York of earlier eras. The people she worked with, the lives she touched, and her journey from an aspiring, poor bohemian to successful performance artist and musician is inspiring. Her account of her lifelong friendship with Mapplethorpe calls to mind how precious — and rare — a true and lasting friendship can be. Smith was in the limelight again this year for her appearance and performance at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, at which he failed to appear (viewable here). It’s a beautiful tribute to an American icon.
The Suble Art of Not Giving a F*k, by Mark Manson. Pickup-artist-turned-blogger Mark Manson has taken some of his best-loved ideas and turned them into a book. For a man under 40, he’s incredibly wise and unpretentious. His ideas, though often counterintuitive, make a lot of sense. They’re down to earth and are a good antidote for the pie-in-the-sky school of creative visualization and positive affirmation championed by many New Age personal development authors and the self-esteem movement. For people of my generation, it’s my parents’ advice revisioned and re-articulated, minus the judgments. His key point, which informs the whole book, is about values. Clarifying our values with a fine-toothed comb will help us choose more wisely the things that we care about. And doing that will give us better problems, which in turn give us a better life.
How to Break Your Addiction to a Person by Howard M. Halpern. If you need to break an unhealthy romantic attachment — as I did earlier last year — this book is for you. Addiction to alcohol or drugs is well-known, and the remedies are relatively straightforward, though not easy. Addiction to a person is a little harder to define, and the cure is not so simple, but with time, effort, and support, it is possible. The book looks at the phenomenon of “attachment hunger” and all the ways it can interfere with living our best life. It’s a brilliant mix of self-help advice and an explanation, in layperson’s terms, of object relations theory, which is how mental health clinicians explain the ways in which our experiences of other people are formed from an early age. If there are problems getting our attachment needs met during early childhood, it can lead to problems forming healthy relationships later. Parts one and two address the workings of an addiction to a person. You may recognize a lot of your own and others’ toxic behaviors here, but what’s really helpful is the last part, which offers techniques and exercises to break free. These include writing, building a supportive network, and self-talk that promotes self-esteem. There is also a chapter on how to make the best use of psychotherapy, for those who wish to seek professional help in this situation.
Reading the Manson book before reading this book will help you make better use of the exercises here. Remember that affirmations that build self-esteem are only useful if you can find things in your life to feel good about. But as you spend more time alone, become reacquainted with yourself, and take concrete actions that move your life forward, finding things to feel good about gets easier.
Eating the Honey of Words by Robert Bly. I heard Robert Bly read while he was on the Ohio Poetry Circuit in 1978 or 1979, and I’ve been addicted to his work ever since. This book is a selection of poems from his books spanning almost fifty years, and contains work that had not previously been included in any collection. (Bly turned 90 last year; my tribute to his life and work can be found here.) The book is divided into sections that begin with the earliest books and end with the latest, but the divisions overlap and and are not strictly chronological. Still it’s easy to see, in this book, all the ways in which his work has evolved. The poems often contain one or two details from nature that suddenly come in with a revelation about his, or our, inner lives that had previously been unnoticed. But the biggest gift his writing gives to me is he way the shares his experience of the feminine — both the real women in his life, and with his own feminine side. The way he gets in touch with aspects of himself that many men never notice over their whole lives can be an inspiration to the rest of us. A good way to experience “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds” or “Morning Poems” is to read them once, read Iron John or A Little Book on the Human Shadow, and then read the poems again. It’s not for the faint of heart. You might find, for instance, as Bly does in “A Man Writes to a Part of Himself”, that your feminine side has regressed through neglect, and is living in primitive, hostile conditions. Or you might see hints of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, in his seminal protest poem against the Vietnam war, “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” — though she’s never mentioned by name.
The Way of the Superior Man, by David Deida. First published in 1997, and now in its 23rd printing, this book is a beautiful guide, for men or masculine-identified people, for dealing with women or female-identified people. I’ve read it about once a year since 2008, and it yields new treasures every time. Its generalizations may enrage or offend you, but if men read it, take long breaks to breathe fully during those difficult passages, and then go back to it, they will find, after doing this over several years, that the places in the book they find hardest to accept are those that point to their biggest potential for growth. Women can read the book too, as a guide to understand what the men in their lives are all about. The book is a few years old by now, and some of its more important points can be easily challenged. For example, Deida says that men are happiest while filling their life-purpose, whereas women are happiest while in relationship. The data from the Harvard Study are now in and suggest, pretty convincingly, that close relationships are the key to happiness, not just for women, but for everyone. But it is true, over the short term, that men tend to find fulfilment in their achievements. It’s a wise man that honors that impulse in himself, while keeping family and close friendships — the things that matter most over the long term — in sight.