In the dwindling days of the year, it’s traditional to take stock of our personal progress: relationship goals met, career highs achieved, marathons run, travel destinations crossed off our bucket list.
However! This also happens to be a crazy-making way to evaluate the passage of time. We are not human Fitbits, thank goodness. Our lives are too messy and complicated to conform to a series of self-congratulatory, reductive bullet points.
A far less stressful way to take stock of the year is to recognize the books, podcasts, articles and art that introduced us to new ways of understanding the world–and helped make us a little more thoughtful and compassionate than we were the year before. To that end, here are Quartz staffers’ thoughts on the things that made us smarter in 2015, from meditation apps to 23-year-old piano virtuosos to books on failure, India’s Partition and a political battle over the fate of a California oyster farm. – Quartz Ideas
Parenting is an eternal trial-and-error experiment. Occasionally, you feel you’ve nailed it, but more often than not, you know that you are screwing something up. Reading Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure opened my eyes to the big way I was messing things up. As a teacher, Lahey has more experience than most as to what ails kids. What she sees is that in a bid born of love, we protect our kids from failure. We deliver late homework to school, settle fights for our kids, and walk them through passages they actually need to stumble through. The book changed how I think about big and small aspects of being a mom, hopefully for the better.
By now you’ve probably heard about Marie Kondo’s KonMari clutter-clearing method, with its precious folding methods and indiscriminate discarding of unread books, which she details in her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. That’s all fine. Here’s the real thing to know about The Life-Changing Magic: It’s a self-help book that’s all about intuition, gratitude, and letting go. And it’s not just for your sock drawer. In 2015 I broke up with my boyfriend of nearly five years. When I had to move from our spacious two-bedroom apartment into a tiny studio, I bought into Kondo’s method as if I was temporarily insane. The main action involves asking yourself whether a possession “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, you get rid of it, even if it once made you happy. You recognize its purpose in your life is done, and as ridiculous as it sounds, you actually say thanks: “Thanks sweater, for keeping me warm when I was 25, but now you look boxy, and it’s time to go.” Then you put it in a bag, and you keep going. Before you know it, you will have guiltlessly cleaned out a significant portion of your life’s clutter, and be left with just your favorite things. Perhaps more importantly, you will have practiced, again and again, how to trust your instinct, let go of guilt, express gratitude, and give something up.
One of the most unexpectedly illuminating things I came across in 2015 was a YouTube video about, of all things, Orson Welles’s movie F for Fake and how to structure a video essay. Tony Zhou, the maker and the mind behind the great film-analysis channel Every Frame a Painting, connects lessons on storytelling from artists as diverse as Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In just a few minutes, he offers an insightful lesson about how to tell a story that’s also more broadly a guide to thinking and communicating clearly.
The most important things I read this year were on the construct of whiteness in America. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates artfully explores the myth of “whiteness” as a creation story, one used to legitimize an American dream that destroys black bodies. I could only read a few pages at a time; the ideas are so powerful and so counter to the accepted narrative of American history that it requires wholesale rethinking of the story we’ve been telling ourselves. In her essay “White Debt” for The New York Times, Eula Biss writes, “For me, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem.” No matter how painful it may be to come to terms with that realization, perceiving race on the moral spectrum affords us choice on how to understand privilege and the reasons we can’t develop meaningful communities in the US.
Here, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, contains the idea that altered my perception most this year. The book is described by the publisher as a “story of a corner of a room and of the events that have occurred in that space over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.” McGuire presents these events and years mostly all at once. His great idea is simple enough: panels within panels. The way these wormhole-like images are placed, and what they communicate, produces existential joy and melancholy, often on the same page. In these heady days of “innovation,” it’s thrilling to experience the genuine article.
This fall, I found myself inadvertently book-less before departing for a three-hour train trip. In a blind panic, I purchased Dan Jones’s The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors from a station newsstand, mainly because the summary read something along the lines of, “It’s Game of Thrones, IRL.” Sold. At first glance, it’s an intimidatingly thick read, something you might halfheartedly give your dad on his birthday, or employ as a makeshift doorstop. But Jones relays the events instigating and constituting England’s medieval civil war with such engaging and accessible writing that I tore through it in a single round-trip ride. It’s a smart, cavorting romp through a deliriously bloody and treacherous era; a survey of historical events—namely, the installation of the modern British monarchy—rarely covered in schools outside the United Kingdom. And yet, without the characters and situations so vibrantly painted—the grisly battles, the wine-drenched weddings, the streetside stabbings and botched beheadings—the world as we know it wouldn’t exist. (For better or worse.)
I took four books to beach-read on my honeymoon this year, but I spent the entire time with Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which explains the rise of the American political right in the 1960s. Usually anyone I tell about this book is already asleep by now, but listen: If you can understand the ’60s, you can understand all of American politics. The secret is that the most lasting social movement of the decade had nothing to do with peace or drugs or music—it was the the anti-tax, anti-abortion “silent majority.” I know it’s confusing and dismaying in what feels like a progressive, forward-thinking era to look around and see the rise of a reactionary, inward-turning politics. But it’s easier if you know that it’s happened before.
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari was my favorite book this year. I grew up on stories about the Partition: my mother’s family lived it and experienced its great traumas. I’ve read a dozen books on the subject and seen a dozen movies about it. But Hajari’s telling, both thorough and thoughtful, gave me a new appreciation of the still-festering wound Partition left on the Indian subcontinent. It achieves the near-impossible: a perfectly neutral appraisal of an event that almost demands the taking of sides.
This fall, I finally got around to reading Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, and I highly recommend you do the same. While I rarely describe nonfiction as delightful, this book was. It’s smart, beautifully written, and perfectly balanced between informative and anecdotal. Osnos brings to life the story of China’s transformation into the New China with colorful characters and just the right sprinkling of vignettes from his own travels. You’ll be so entertained that you can’t help but learn something as well.
This year, I stumbled upon Ann Friedman’s weekly column for New York magazine in their online style section, The Cut. Like most writing for women, Friedman focuses on relationships, feminism, and sex. Unlike most of the writing in women’s magazines, however, her columns approach each of these subjects from an original, personal angle. Her style is conversational, but her reasoning is professional. Reading one of her pieces feels simultaneously like talking to a friend and watching a lawyer argue (and win) her case in court. The topics she chooses always feel relevant, and tend to answer the questions I am asking myself as I follow the news each week.
Few understand Brussels like Breugel, a think tank that specializes in European economics. Its reports and commentaries have always been useful, but in 2015 they proved indispensable as the European Central Bank sailed into uncharted waters with a massive bond-buying program, Greece’s bailout fiasco threatened to sink the entire project, and countless other catastrophes threatened the continent’s economy. From one crisis to the next, I often found myself turning to Bruegel for comprehensive yet accessible analysis that was unafraid to delve deep into the data and dig into the grisly details of how European institutions actually work, admirably free from the national biases that cloud reporting about the EU in many other outlets.
Every couple of years, usually after hearing a politician or talking-head economist pop off about the inflationary dangers of recent US Federal Reserve policy, I return to this 2009 staff report (pdf) from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It isn’t leisure reading, per se, but for a Fed bank staff report, it’s very approachable. Using plain English and mercifully simple examples, economists Todd Keister and James McAndrews explain why a buildup of bank reserves in the US financial system in fact has no effect on inflation, no matter what you might hear elsewhere. There was no better year to revisit this than in 2015, when all eyes were back on the Fed. Most people don’t understand much about the reserves banks keep parked at the Fed. Even fewer people understand that since 2008, when the Fed began paying interest on reserves (IOR), it broke the link between bank reserves and inflation. Once you accept this as fact—and you will after reading Keister and McAndrews—you’ll be farther ahead than most people in understanding how Fed policy actually works. But the connections (or lack thereof) between interest rates, reserves, and inflation remain complicated stuff; don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to this paper again and again.
This year, three different things have helped make me smarter than I was on Dec. 31, 2014. First, I reread the brilliantly researched A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin. I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to wrap my head around the whys and what-to-dos of that region and its impact on our world, and that determination has certainly been redoubled this year. The book makes clear the Western missteps that have led us to where we are today and reinforced my understanding of political complexities. Second, I take guitar lessons at 8:30 am every Saturday, which clear out the clutter of the week, leaving me free and open to new thinking in the days after. Third, my colleagues. Trite? True!
This summer, after moving to a new apartment and extending my commute time, I was eager to find more podcasts I could listen to during that post-work ride home. On the recommendation of a friend, I tried out “Life of the Law” and soon found myself eagerly anticipating each episode. In terms of length, it hits that sweet spot between 15 minutes and half an hour, and the angle taken for each episode is always interesting and unique. I always end up wanting to dig deeper into the subject presented. A recent episode is focused on jury consultants. Another is a first-person narrative of a man’s first year out of prison, and yet another looks at the legal intricacies of owning remains after a loved one’s death.
In the early 19th century, no scientist was more famous than Alexander von Humboldt. The original pioneer of much of the world’s sensibility about nature and climate, Humboldt is etched into our landscape in the names of towns, species, bays and mountains. Yet he is far from the public conscious, especially in the US. I knew growing up, for instance, of Humboldt State University in northern California. But who or what was Humboldt? In a first-rate biography, Andrea Wulf rescues Humboldt with elegance and detail, including a cast of characters such as Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Kaiser Wilhelm. The Invention of Nature is the best non-fiction book I read in 2015, and deserves to be on the short list of the major prizes.
Mandy Len Catron’s wildly popular Modern Love column, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” was a near-perfect contribution to the long-running series that documents the power and pitfalls of our most universal, complex human experience. Catron’s premise—that she would replicate on a first date an experiment by Dr. Arthur Aron, who claimed he was able to facilitate two strangers falling in love merely by having them stare into each other eyes by asking one another increasingly intimate questions—was simple, and ever more the poignant because, as she says, it worked. Sort of. In a world in which we are increasingly creating technologies to measure and enhance and hack our humanity, her essay both underlined and challenged a paradox of the modern condition: We are both startlingly adaptable to our environments, and yet always only ourselves. “Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate,” she writes. “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”
I will remember 2015 as a glorious year—a year that taught me a lot in an unusually kind way. Some things I just happened to discover by myself. But many others I gleaned from reading and watching. Taiye Selasi fascinated me with her thoughtful TED talk on the idea of being a local in more than one place—a new way to define identity. Writing for the New Yorker, John Cassidy made me see that über-generous skillionaires donating all their money to philanthropy isn’t necessarily the best thing for democracy. Adam Curtis’s art film/documentary Bitter Lake left me mesmerized, with its blurred yet powerful journey through the past few decades looking at the stubborn arrogance of the West. Clemantine Wamariya’s personal essay, “Everything Is Yours, Everything Is Not Yours,” threw the uncomfortable truth of privilege right in my face with the sheer power of telling her story—one of horror and resilience. And finally, Andrea and Marco Nasuto’s Made of Limestone made me dwell on the ultimate question I face as an immigrant: Why did I leave?
I could never choose one single thing that made me smarter this year, but there was a topic that society forced me to be smarter about this year. For me, 2015 was the year of learning about race. I grew up in the rural southern United States and had little exposure to outside ideas, so I’m spending my adulthood catching up. The year started with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie showing me what it’s like to move to the US and learn what it means to be black in Americanah. Then the phenomenal Jesmyn Ward took me back to the South and detailed how black men left her community, one by one, in Men We Reaped. And finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained this country to me in a way I didn’t know I needed to hear, teaching me new empathy in Between the World and Me.
I finally read Ron Suskind’s New York Times article “Reaching my autistic son through Disney,” published last year. It hit home, likely because I have a younger brother with autism. But it also pointed to the struggle that kids with autism face—becoming adults with autism. So little is known about the older generation of people on the spectrum, partly because there hasn’t been enough research. The Atlantic’s piece on the topic earlier this month, by Jessica Wright, sheds some much-needed light on the subject.
I spent Nov. 2015 in a trance, courtesy of Daniil Trifonov. My knowledge of classical music is not very deep, but I was so captivated by the electrifying 23-year old Russian classical pianist’s first performance, where he embodied the rumored devil-worshiper virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini, that I watched him perform three more times that month! As the guest soloist at the New York Philharmonic, Trifonov performed three different challenging Rachmaninoff concerts for three consecutive weeks (under different conductors, without sheet music). This millennial was everything—ultra-talented, well-spoken, humble, and genuinely enthusiastic. It’s lamentable that he doesn’t have bigger fanbase than Justin Bieber. Following Trifonov around also made me pay attention to the incredible dynamic of an orchestra, which is usually submerged in the dim orchestra pit or else operating anonymously when providing the musical score for films and plays. But to attend the symphony (and bear its quirky formalities) is to witness the design and production of sound firsthand.
This summer, I joined a yoga studio down the block from my apartment. Yoga taught me that you can breathe through pretty much anything in life—be it as small as a difficult stretch or as large as a real hardship. Just noticing the rhythms your own breath can go a long way toward clearing the mind.
I learned more about the politics of food from Summer Brennan’s The Oyster War than probably anything else I’ve read this year. The fight over the California oyster farm shows how local politics can quickly become national ones, how science can be twisted to meet anyone’s needs, and how even seemingly simple directives like “eat local” and “protect the wilderness” can actually be very complicated. I also learned that there’s no such thing as native California oysters, and got a tutorial on the history of the American environmentalist movement. I recommend the book to anyone who loves eating oysters, and even those who don’t. If you already know how it ends, it’s still worth the read. But if you don’t, even better. For a story about a small oyster farm, it’s surprisingly suspenseful.
2015 was the year I discovered the power of meditation. First, I began to listen to the University of California at Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center’s Free Guided Meditations. Then I went to a seminar on Forgiveness Meditation with my sister at the Tibet House here in New York City. The lecturers introduced me to the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University and the research of Frederic Luskin, which quantifies the power of mindfulness by showing how many mental and physical benefits it can convey. I also learned a favorite new aphorism: holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Finally, I downloaded the Buddhify app, which has dozens of guided meditations for nearly every purpose—everything from sitting on a plane to a “loving kindness” meditation, which is my favorite. I don’t meditate every day, but the first step to getting smarter is being in a mental state to receive and process information. That’s why this has been a life-changing discovery for me.
If, like me, you happen to be the child of baby-boomer hippies, you remember copies of Mother Jones lurking in your childhood home–perhaps stacked with another earnest, dusty periodical like Prevention. Mother Jones magazine, named after 1800s labor organizer Mary Harris Jones, seemed like a particularly irrelevant relic from another time during the Reagan era, and in fact through most of the 1980s and 1990s. But the magazine’s circulation has grown through the 2000s as it gained newfound relevance, and this past year it was impossible to dismiss. Whether it’s the regularly-updated mass-shooting database started in 2012 that has become one of the go-to sources of information on the gun control debate in the US, this year’s piece on the cost of gun violence, or deeply reported articles on homelessness and abortion laws, Mother Jones has been delivering unflinching and ground-breaking reporting that often makes much better-funded, better-staffed mainstream news outlets look lazy and late.
My daily subway commute on the extra-smooshed Q train was made approximately 20 times more bearable this year thanks to NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast. Host Shankar Vedantam draws on social science to explain various dimensions of human behavior. One of my favorite episodes, “Stereotype Threat,” explores how the only woman at a world-champions’ poker table internalized sexist perceptions of her abilities–and how she managed to overcome self-doubt and turn her minority position into an advantage. I also learned a lot from This American Life’s two–part radio series, “The Problem We All Live With.” Reporters Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chana Joffe-Walt expose the persistence of educational inequality in the US. The solution is right in front of us: there’s plenty of evidence that integrating schools helps close the achievement gap between black and white students. But getting white Americans on board is a difficult task–not least because so many people are reluctant to acknowledge that the country has a problem with race.
I listened to B.J. Novak’s One More Thing by way of Audible a few weeks ago. The short stories were sometimes hilarious, other times sentimental, and all very fun. They’re very relatable and got me thinking a little more deeply about a range of topics, from the calendar to heaven, love, and ethical clothing. Novak’s stories range in length and occasionally overlap, which makes for a surprising and unconventional read. One of my favorites in the collection is just three sentences, and started its life as a tweet. It always gets me laughing and thinking about what is meaningful in my life.