Not reading about Alexander Hamilton

It’s that time of year when your mind turns to all of your failed new year’s resolutions from January.

Earlier this week, I looked back at my list of resolutions and actually, I’ve done okay on some of these. But today I wanted to re-visit number 3 in particular which was: read more non-fiction. I noted at the start of this year that the only non-fiction I ever seemed to read is ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’.

Let’s cast an appraising eye over 2017 and see how this is going. Fortunately for me, and you all, I have succeeded in my resolution of keeping a list of all the books I’ve read this year, and so here is how the non-fiction tally looks so far:

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

And that’s it. Apart from business books read for work, this is the entire non-fiction list in all its glory. All of these books were excellent in their different ways and well worth reading. I would recommend them to you were it not for the fact that 5,000 other people have already done so because they are indeed ‘the non-fiction books that everyone has read’. They are the non-fiction books that people who basically prefer to read fiction have read. They are to 2017 non-fiction publishing what Despacito is to 2017 summer holiday tunes.

I realised this some time around mid-October, but in just the same way that in mid-October, it still feels entirely possible that you can lose a stone by Christmas, I decided in mid-October that it was still entirely possible that I could read an 832-page biography of Alexander Hamilton by 9 December, the much-anticipated date on which I was going to see the show.

hamilton

The eagle-eyed among you will note that 9 December is now just two days away. So let me share how this is going so far. I have read about 80% of the free Kindle sample of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It is very good! I know almost everything that happened to Alexander Hamilton before he got to age 15! Plus quite a bit of stuff about his parents! And in my defence, because the book is so long, the Kindle free sample is also long.

Around mid-November, realising I had three books to edit before 9 December, and with my goal of the whole 832 pages looking increasingly unlikely, I scaled down my expectations and decided that maybe reading a novel about Alexander Hamilton was more achievable. So I downloaded this one. Which I still haven’t started.

So. I now have less than 48 hours to go (I’m going to the matinee) and know virtually nothing about Hamilton apart from what I can dimly remember from my history degree 20 years ago and what he got up to as a young child – which I’m guessing probably isn’t the focus of the musical. Even reading Hamilton’s whole Wikipedia page at this point is starting to feel ambitious. So if anyone wants to sum up the key points of his life in a tweet or a brief email, that would be great. And any recommendations for shorter and more surprising non-fiction that I could polish off in the next three weeks would also be much appreciated.

 

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On Option B and leaning in

I’ve just finished reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s all over the place at the moment, so I’m probably telling you what you already know, which is that it is part memoir, part self help, part study of the psychological impact of death and bereavement, inspired by the death of Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg, at the tragic age of 47. I thought it was very good indeed.

option b

I was a qualified fan of Lean In. Like many others, I had issues with it – yes, it was overwhelmingly focused on the privileged; yes, it wasn’t focused enough on how you can lean in all you like, and some combination of bad circumstances, bad employers, the inequalities of the parental leave system (or, in the case of the US, no proper parental leave system at all) and societal prejudice can still keep pushing you right back; and yes it hugely underplayed the family sacrifices that are required from anyone – female or male – who chooses to get to the top of their chosen field.

But for all of that, it contained a lot of excellent advice and was an overwhelmingly positive contribution to a conversation in which there are still, every day, so many overwhelmingly negative ones. And one of the strongest sections of all to my mind was the one that I immediately thought of when I heard that Dave Goldberg had died – the chapter ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner’ in which Sandberg says that one’s choice of life partner is hugely important to any woman who is serious about pursuing her career post-children.

Interestingly, this seems to be one bit of Lean In that Sandberg now regrets: ‘When I wrote Lean In, some people argued that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they don’t have a partner. They were right. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home. I wrote … about the importance of couples splitting child care and housework 50/50. Now I see how insensitive and unhelpful this was to so many single moms who live with 100/0’.

Sandberg’s loss has given her a new, undesired, radical change of perspective. She is being somewhat unfair to herself and her earlier book here, because the fact that a married parent has no conception of how hard it is to be a single parent does not change the essential rightness of her advice: for those who are in a relationship and have a career, the division of labour is of vital importance. But her disarming honesty about her own experience in Option B, coupled with the research in the book, and the genuinely ‘practical’ approach of steps one can take to deal with and move beyond loss (Sandberg and Grant are careful to distinguish ‘moving beyond’ from ‘getting over’), make the book very powerful.

My father died in 2013, and when he died, all the usual good people in my life did all the usual good things. But one of the best things that bookish people do in virtually any situation, however serious, is recommend books that you might want to read, and that they think might help you. And so during this period (much like all those other life periods) I read a lot. The majority of the books I read were memoirs, and the highlight among them was the brilliant Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I’m sure needs no introduction. I have since seen the film, scripted by Nick Hornby, which I loved almost as much as the book. But as much as I loved Wild, it is generally inspirational, rather than specifically useful.  ‘I’m going to walk my way back to the woman my mother knew I could be’ says Strayed in the film. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that? In the months following my dad’s death, I was mainly spending 10 hours a day in the office whilst looking after a small child and suffering from debilitating morning sickness. It felt almost possible that if I could somehow get myself into a position where I was hiking the Pacific Coast Trail like Strayed (something which, I should add, I would be utterly incapable of doing at even the healthiest and happiest time of my life) then perhaps I would discover some important life lessons that could help me through this difficult phase. But that clearly wasn’t an option for me – A, B, or C.

But the book that I felt I was lacking – or at least the book that I didn’t come across at the time – was a book like Option B. It has a strong combination of personal experience, efficient how-to-ness and reassuring statistical findings, that one can’t help but speculate appeals to someone of Sandberg’s get-it-done mindset, not to mention someone with her phenomenal workload. Unlike Lean In, it goes to great lengths (arguably too obviously so) to ensure that all types of suffering and loss are covered – as well as Sandberg’s personal story, she and Grant talk about the experiences of children who have lost parents, people who have lived through natural disasters, refugees who have fled persecution in their home countries and even Holocaust survivors. But my sense, without being able to speak for anyone else, is that there are things here that a lot of people recovering from a lot of different types of loss would find valuable.

And if I can end a post about such a serious book on a completely trivial note, Option B reveals that Sandberg is often in bed earlier than I am, a fact that I find almost as inspirational as anything in Lean In. I always suspected that my career might one day be limited by my need to be in bed by 10pm on a week night – but Sandberg is a shining example that this needn’t be the case. So I can now hold my head up in pride, lean in and admit that I haven’t watched Newsnight since early 2009.