March 19, 2010

Books about very specific things that double as manuals for living a good life

I hate self-help books. Irrationally so, since I am just the kind of neurotic, self-conscious type who often looks at oneself and decides one needs help.

Which is why I love self-help books in disguise: books about specific, grounded pursuits that just happen to double as big-picture life improvement manuals.

My two favorites (one old, one brand new):

True and False, by David Mamet

This is supposedly a book about how to become a good actor. Actual actors tend to think it’s full of shit, because Mamet doesn’t really care about process, or Method, or acting” at all in the sense of how to become better at pretending.” He cares about acting in the sense of how to become better at doing.” Like, man of action”-type acting—which, of course, translates just as well to real life as the stage. Putting up or shutting up. Taking action even when you’re scared or uncertain. Just doing it—not because of what it symbolizes” or because you think you understand your motivation”—because it needs doing. Like in an or else I don’t eat today” kind of way.

If you want straight talk on how to act—or, in other words, live—with purpose and integrity, Mamet’s your man. (He also thinks grad school is for pussies, which is an entertaining point of view.)

Rework, by The Founders of 37signals

This one’s about how to start, run and grow a profitable small business. It’s relevant to me because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with Small Mammal. But even if I weren’t, there’s scads of wonderfully blunt wisdom about how to square making a living” with making a meaningful life.”

This book is all about how to zero in on what’s real in your world, and how to crop out all the bullshit that seems important but isn’t. Like how being a workaholic isn’t actually being a hero. Or how spending your life in important meetings” adds up to jack squat at the end of the day (or the end of the life). Or, my favorite: how inspiration is perishable—that fire in the belly you feel today will curdle like spoiled milk a month from now. (Note: They don’t actually mix their metaphors like that.)

The point is that this is great life stuff, but the insights are simple and pointed and useful, because they’re about things that are not as abstract as life stuff.”

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