May's reads & books for June
Tara Westover, Frédéric Gros
Reading is not a race. It’s not how many books we can devour but how much of a single book we grasp. While a personal library filled with countless novels, dramas, biographies, and other genres might impress guests, for most of us, there is simply not enough time to read that much.
In the previous months, I had the chance (and time!) to read four to five books on a diverse range of topics. From Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor, I read a treatment on how we might re-design our workplace for less frantic communication; from Malcolm Gladwell, I read a book on how outliers — successful people — come to be. This month, May 2022, I was heavily involved in a Machine Learning project. (I have covered some of my lessons learned in these two posts: 1, 2). Unfortunately, its workload did not leave as much time as I’d like, so I “only” finished two books. The first is an outstanding biography of a young woman seeking education, and the second work is a treatment of the philosophical aspect of walking.
Educated, by Tara Westover
This book was an outstanding read. Written by Tara Westover, it paints her story from growing up in a religious-fanatic household to receiving a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Being kept out of school, Tara teaches herself to learn from books she lends from a library. Then, with partial help from one of her older brothers, she prepares herself for an entrance exam. Failing on the first try, she musters enough courage to attempt again, this time being accepted. While learning her way up — which she had to teach herself — the bond to her family gets cracks.
Gene, her religious fanatic father, dominates the family. Then there is her brother Shawn, a violent and aggressive person. As Tara gets into her teenage years and becomes feminine, Shawn begins to denounce her as a whore; Tara applying makeup and lipstick goes against his view of a pure woman. On this and many other occasions, we see a profoundly insecure Tara. Throughout her book, she tries to find out what it means to be a woman and how this connects to her Mormon upbringing. For example, during her childhood years, she starts taking dance classes, but her parents (mainly her father; back then, her mother is more resilient to his extremist influence) want her to wear clothing that allows for no bare skin. So while her peers wear short trousers, she tries to fit in with clothes covering her legs until the ankle. Likewise for the upper body clothing. Her normalcy is not the other girls’ normalcy.
Towards the end of the book, as Tara begins to become herself, the family is split. Four of the children, her included, have pursued a university education and have been expelled from the family. The other three siblings remain part of the Westover family and are indoctrinated by Gene’s religious fanatism. However, the crack extends beyond the inner family; Tara’s mother, Faye, is a practicing midwife and knows her way around herbs. The reputation of her and her salves makes the Westovers an influential family. As a result, many people use Faye’s herb-based medications instead of visiting a hospital. In one chapter, Tara describes how her father was severely burned — but did not want to be taken to a doctor. Instead, he wanted to go through this on his own; he saw the accident as a testimony from God.
I read the book once, and it haunted me. Westover describes her experiences in a very personal way. Even though she received death threats from Shawn and was betrayed by her mother and her sister, Audrey, she finds the strength to maintain an intimate and still somewhat loving voice. The close description of the painful and violent events often stuck with me throughout the day. Tara’s story got me thinking about the value of education and family. Bill Gates called it right when he said that the book is even better than we’ve heard. I wholeheartedly recommend this extraordinary autobiography; a true act of courage, bravery, and resilience, a transforming journey of becoming and being oneself.
Background: after Gene — the father — turns off the lights, the children can no longer secretly read their educational books. But
“[…] Richard would pull the book to his nose and read in the dark; he wanted to read that badly. He wanted to read the encyclopedia that badly.” (p. 62)
A Philosophy of Walking, by Frédéric Gros
Having been fond of walking for a long time, I wanted to explore its philosophical side. Henry David Thoreau, in his aptly titled book Walking, was one of the first to cover the underlying philosophy. Looking for broader access to the topic, I decided on Frédéric Gros’ equally revealingly titled work A Philosophy of Walking. Garnered with illustrations from Clifford Harper, the book covers the many aspects of walking. For example, for Kant, the daily walk was a fixed point of his schedule, around one hour in length and not to transpiration. In contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche was a never stopping walker, hiking for five, ten hours per day in the mountains of the southeastern Swiss Alps. During his long tours, Nietzsche composed his most remarkable works (c.f. p. 17).
Beyond Kant, Nietzsche, and other prominent figures, Gros guides the reader through the many ways of walking. There’s the stroll, the urban walk, the Galant walk, the hike, and the pilgrimage. Especially on the last point, Gros gives convincing details on why walking is the preferred way of commuting: during a (religious) voyage, pilgrims often set out to gain divine assistance for their task. By deciding to approach their goals by foot, they purify themselves from the worldly clutter during the many hundred kilometers traveled. Reaching their destination (Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela), they are humble and cleansed from excess. In such a state, they are ready to receive, to feel the saint’s presence.
As I read the book, roadworks temporarily concealed the nearby bus stop. So, usually taking the public transport for commuting, I gave walking a try. Interestingly, I arrived at work not much later than usual. Arriving on foot, however, I have already spent a good thirty minutes walking, at least half of it through green public parks. The time outside in nature lets me start the workday more calmly. Noticing this, I replaced the bus ride more often with walking. That is the walker’s benefit that Gros points out: she does not need much equipment. It’s sufficient to place one foot in front of the other.
Initially published in French as Marcher, une philosophie, John Howe’s translation into English is excellent. So excellent, in fact, that I did not even notice I was reading a translation until halfway through. The words are playful and arranged with seemingly ease. Reading this book felt like calmly meandering through prose, amplified by the simple illustrations that gave the book an artful touch. I recommend this book to walkers of all backgrounds; it is especially appealing to strollers and mountain hikers. This book might be the tipping point for readers looking for a slower way of getting from A to B, encouraging them to trust their bodies to find the road.
Covering Nietzsche’s ten years from 1879 to 1889, Gros describes the philosopher’s hikes through the Swiss Alps. From the high mountains, a devoted walker can take a detached view of society:
“[…] from above, from a detached position, one understands what made mankind sick: the poison of sedentary moralities.” (p. 24)