Mini-reviews of books I read last month. My fiction recommendation is without hesitation "To Kill a Mockingbird". My non-fiction pick is "Flow". I'll probably explore the concept of flow further by reading books about its application, and writing about specific examples. 1. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee <http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Mockingbird/dp/0061205699> You probably know that this is a novel about racial injustice and prejudice set in Alabama in the mid 1930s. I'd put off reading it, thinking it might be too preachy. But I needn't have worried. Written from the relatively innocent viewpoint of a young girl, the concepts of racial segregation, class hierarchies and general prejudice come across as rather puzzling to her. In the first half of the novel we're given a description of the simple, almost idyllic lives of the narrator, the young tomboyish Jean Louise Finch ("Scout"), her older brother Jeremy ("Jem"), and their summer-time friend "Dill". Scout's father is Atticus Finch, a widower and middle- aged lawyer. We are introduced to the attitudes and customs of the good people of Maycomb, Alabama. While Scout is an avid reader, she doesn't like school much. She's fearless, but even she's wary of their mysterious and reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley. The court case that brings the race issue to a head doesn't happen until the second half of the novel. For a more detailed analysis of the plot and themes, see Wikipedia: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Kill_a_Mockingbird> You can read many of the over 2000 generally effusive reviews on Amazon. I can only add that this novel is indeed worthy of the labels "classic" and "must read". 2. "La gente" ("People") by Vincenzo Cerami <http://www.amazon.it/gente/dp/8804581034> This is an interesting collection of short stories about the lives of various people. Each self-contained vignette is set in Italy, at different times during the post-war period. The characters experience the growing pains of Italian society. Many of the stories are enjoyable, with several having ironic twists. For example, a painter has a strange condition where bright light makes him sick. He spends his days indoors and underground, venturing outdoors only before dawn or after dusk. His black and white paintings earn him some financial independence. Then one day his sensitivity to daylight goes away, and he begins to appreciate colour. He starts painting more vivid and colourful scenes, but these no longer interest his patrons. Cerami also writes screenplays, such as "Life is Beautiful", which he cowrote with Roberto Benigni. 3. "Practical Wisdom" by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe <http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Wisdom/dp/1594487839> The authors of this book aim to promote the idea that the world would be a better place if everyone exercised "practical wisdom". This is an ancient ideal from Aristotle which seems to have fallen out of favour these days. Instead, we seem to have advocates of two extremes: no- rules anarchy (free-market theory, everything open); and explicit and inflexible rules for everyone with no exceptions. The authors suggest that incentives and rules have their place, but we need to take a pragmatic approach to enforcement. As per the book's subtitle, it's about learning "the right way to do the right thing", one person at a time if necessary. The book quotes research and cites many individual cases that support the notion that a new approach is needed to achieve positive results in such important fields as education, justice, medicine and business. Rigid rules can be as damaging as no rules at all, especially if they remove discretion, or reduce engagement and purpose. The recent turmoil in financial markets demonstrate how incentivised organisations and individuals can severely damage the systems they were meant to serve. If you can't find time to read the book, you can watch a recent TED talk by Schwartz, "Using our practical wisdom": <http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_using_our_practical_wisdom.html> 4. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi <http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience/dp/0061339202> Years ago I remember an sportsman saying he was "in the zone" when he was playing well. Other people have described being in the zone when writing, programming, playing music and even cooking. These are also examples of "flow". If you have the necessary skill to do well at an activity that is challenging, requires concentration and provides quick feedback, then you can achieve flow. You lose awareness of not only the sense of time, but even your own ego. Money and status may provide short term happiness. But multiple studies show that the returns start diminishing rapidly after a surprisingly low threshold. What matters for long term happiness is the development of a personal sense of purpose. Flow experiences have been shown to contribute to this. "A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life." (p171) This may sound like a self-help book. It is not. While the book does describes the requirements and elements of flow in great detail, it can't tell you personally how to attain flow. Everyone is different, and what may be a flow activity for one person may be unbearable for someone else. Note also that flow should not to be confused with hedonism. Some personal control must be maintained. The Zen-like nature of flow may lead some critics to dismiss flow as some kind of secular pseudo-religion. While there can be some spiritual aspects to flow, and it may share some wisdom from various religions, the theory itself is based on empirical research. The author cites many research studies where people have been able to achieve flow or "optimal experience". Activities studied range from obvious fields like sport, arts, sciences and medicine, to the mundane. A septuagenarian women living in the harsh Italian Alps, working sixteen-hour days on her little farm, considers everything she does enjoyable. The concept of flow really resonated with me. It coincides with what I've experienced myself, both in work and everyday life. A simple and obvious personal example is reading. When I'm reading something interesting and challenging enough, I'm fully engaged. Time flies. When I try reading something too challenging, as was the case when I started reading Italian novels, the struggle made progress difficult and enjoyment suffered. With practice my Italian comprehension improved, and reading Italian became as satisfying as reading English. For the time-challenged, read the Wikipedia article on flow: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29> Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has also given a TED talk on flow: <http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html> 5. "The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time" by David L. Ulin <http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Art-Reading/dp/1570616701> This short book is essentially an extended essay about the role of books and reading in the present and near future. The author, a former book review editor, fears that book reading is under threat in a distracted age of short attention spans. As a result, individuals and society as a whole will miss out on the many benefits of reading. Throughout the book the author reveals his personal reading experiences and development. He mentions various books and authors, some well known and others obscure. He covers the joys and frustrations rereading "The Great Gatsby" at the same time his son is studying it for school. He admits that reading can be seen as anti-social, but maintains that it is an important part of a balanced and reflective perspective on life. While he is wary of the trend from the printed word to electronic formats, he doesn't condemn this change. In fact, he sees opportunities where technology can enhance the reading experience. Providing we can get past the distractions.