The books I read in September 2023

Oct 2, 2023

reading bookclub 100DaysToOffload

Reading time: 12 minutes

September was not a great reading month for me. The month started with a week of being sick, during which I couldn’t do much at all, and even after that I found it difficult to concentrate on reading. Nevertheless, I read three books (more or less), which I’ll summarise here.

Art Spiegelman: Maus (Graphic Novel)

Quite unusual for me, this is not a “normal” book, but a graphic novel instead.

The idea to read this book came from a blog post by Mike Grindle, who was in turn inspired by an interview with Neil Gaiman, to talk about how in certain conservative areas in the US the banning of books from schools seems to be becoming more and more widespread. Quite unsurprisingly, it often affects books that teach about the Holocaust, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus or the diary of Anne Frank - always under the pretext, of course, of having to protect the wellbeing of the children. You can’t expose the poor children to such horrifying stories, the narrative goes, and even worse, some of these books have the audacity to mention the existence of a thing called the female body - and we can’t teach that in our schools!

Of course I would like nothing more than to laugh at the bigotry of these Americans with their ridiculous and antiquated ideas of morality, but these kinds of ideas have a tendency to spread to other parts of the world as well, even here in Europe the argument “we need to protect our children” is used quite frequently to justify legislation that limits civil rights.

Back to the book, the author Art Spiegelman is the son of two Polish Jews, Vladek and Anja, who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to the USA after the war in Europe ended. He himself was born after the war, his mother committed suicide when he was a young man and he didn’t get along too well with his father. However, he was interested in learning about his father’s experiences during the holocaust and preserving them in the form of a graphic novel, so he often went to visit his father (long after his mother’s death), asking him about his life and recording the conversations on tape.

These recordings then became the foundation of the graphic novel. The title stems from the fact that he draws people of different nationalities as different kinds of animals. Jews are depicted as mice, Germans, fittingly, as cats (in an early version, the mice were also much smaller than the cats to make the aggressiveness of the Germans even more obvious, in the final version they are the same size). Other nationalities are also depicted as animals, for example the French are frogs and the Poles are pigs (and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a deeper meaning to this, because most of the Poles in the novel also treat the Jews pretty badly).

The novel has two narrative levels, the framework is how the author, Art, keeps visiting his father to get his experiences about the holocaust on tape, the second level is the story Vladek is telling him.

The story of Art talking to his father is already fascinating, because it gives a good insight into Arts complicated relationship with his father Vladek, who isn’t the most enjoyable person to be around (at one point Art struggles with the depiction of his dad, because he wants to show him how he really is, but realizes that Vladek is pretty much exactly the Jewish cliché of being cheap and thrifty). And one can’t help but wonder if he was always like this or if his experiences have made him into the character he is.

But of course the look into the past is what really makes the book unique. We learn (always from Vladek’s point of view, of course) what the situation was like in Poland before the war began, how conditions for the Jews deteriorated further and further after the German attack on Poland, and how rumours about deportations and concentration camps started to spread, but often weren’t taken seriously because it was simply inconceivable that something like that was really happening. We learn how Vladek and Anja had to give their first son away to keep him safe, and he how he didn’t survive the war regardless. And how Vladek and Anja were eventually deported by the Germans and put on trains to Auschwitz, where they were separated and each had to fight for survival in the face of the absolut horror in the camps.

And no matter how many books about the holocaust I’ve read or movies I’ve watched, reading about individual people’s experiences is always terrifying. About one to 1.5 million people perished in Auschwitz, but it’s a number one can’t really grasp. Reading about what it was like from one persons point of view gives it so much more weight and realism. And a graphic novel acutally works pretty well as a medium, because you don’t just hear Vladek’s story, you can also see it in Art’s black and white images.

Highly recommended reading, and already a contender for best book of the year for me.

And shame on the people who want to restrict access to these kinds of stories for whatever twisted ideological reasons they might have. We teach the history of the Holocaust not to traumatise or terrify our children or to keep us Germans locked in a state of perpetual guilt, as some right-wing blockheads here keep repeating, but to remember what happened. To make us aware of the atrocities humans are capable of and to remind us that it is the duty of us all to prevent such things from ever happening again.

Stephen Baxter: Voyage

Voyage is a science fiction novel of the “what if” category. In this case, what if, after the Apollo moon landings, the USA had not focused on the space shuttle program, but had set its sights on Mars as the next goal and launched a manned mission to Mars instead.

Sounds exciting? I thought so too. But it wasn’t.

The book has about 900 pages (in the German edition), and I really tried to push through, but failed at around page 400 and put it aside.

I have to give Stephen Baxter credit for having really thoroughly researched the subject, and he says himself in the foreword that his aim was to stay as close to reality as possible and to describe the Mars mission and the way to get there as realistically as possible. As far as I have read the book, he has succeeded in doing so. The only problem: I found it really boring.

The characters seem clichéd and flat and uninteresting, more like archetypes than real people, and the situations and events are close to reality and could have really happened that way, but unfortunately they are also not exciting at all. I think I spent about 14 days reading the book, but I never managed more than a dozen or so pages at a time, because it just didn’t grab me.

And instead of sinking more time into it, I decided to put it aside. Maybe the second half will be better and more exciting, but the first half didn’t captivate me at all, so I won’t find out.

David Allen: Getting Things Done

I don’t think there’s much that I can write about Getting Things Done that hasn’t already been written a thousand times somewhere else or described in countless YouTube videos.

By now, the book has become a classic of productivity literature, and for good reason, but also (for me) with a huge catch: it is complex. Just reading through the 300-plus pages takes quite some time, and really understanding the system (let alone actually implementing it!) takes even longer.

I wanted to read the book mainly because I’ve never read it and I wanted to know what the system was really about. Until now I only knew articles and videos about it, but that’s not the same as reading the book itself.

The basic idea is to get everything that requires planning or any kind of action out of your head and into a system that you trust and that you know won’t lose any important information, so you can relax and feel less stressed about trying to remember a thousand different things at any one time. And I have to say, yes, it does seem like a well thought out and complete system for organising and taking control of your work and life, as the title promises. But no, I’m not going to implement it.

At least not in its full form, because it’s just too complex for me and there are some things I probably didn’t understand too well either.

But what I will take away from the book and what I will try to implement is this:

  • Only things that have to be done on that exact day go into the calendar. If you use the calendar as a kind of to-do list, you water it down and you trust it less
  • For each project (for David Allen, almost everything is a project), it must be clearly defined what the next actionable step is. You don’t have to plan the whole project step by step, but the next concrete step has to be clearly described
  • I need a filing system for digital content. PDFs, links, web pages etc…. I try to remember too many things, and even when I save something, it’s often in a random location that I won’t remember a week from now
  • I need a waiting-for system, i.e. for things where I need to wait for someone else’s input or that I can’t do until later, I need a system that reminds me at the right time and that I can trust
  • I should define some “inboxes” that I work through every day and put the contents in appropriate places. E.g. one inbox on the PC, one on the desk, one on the mobile phone for when I’m on the go….
  • I have to set aside some time each day to empty the inboxes. I’m currently trying weekly reviews, but they’re not working super well for me, so maybe daily inbox processing is better

Conclusion: For me personally, I think the system has some interesting approaches, but as a whole it is too complex for me. Nevertheless, it was good to have read the book to get an overview of how David Allen himself describes his system.

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