Invigorate Me
February 27, 2007 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Help reinvigorate my idealism with books. I am looking for literary inspiration to rise above my emotional rut. The best way to describe my situation: I am bored with my safe yuppie life.

My career, love life, finances, and social life are all on track, but I don't feel inspired. I am basically in a Dual Income No Kids situation. My worries and responsibilities are minimal and I think I have too much time to think about myself and how bored I am. I am not looking for: speculation on depression, a membership to the gym, or a map of Tibet. I am just looking for books, both fiction and non-fiction that will invigorate my ideals, refuel my dreams, and spark my motivation. I am not above reading Tony Robbins and not beneath reading Proust.
posted by kaizen to Education (38 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Try "Notes from the Underground" by Dostoevsky or Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"
posted by geoff. at 11:32 AM on February 27, 2007

Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life.
posted by nasreddin at 11:37 AM on February 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

If you want some mental invgoration, try Nicholson Baker's nonfiction book The Size of Thoughts. It's a little too long, but full of insight from a wonderful mind.
posted by KRS at 11:37 AM on February 27, 2007

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is probably the best book about what life is and how to live it that I have ever read.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:41 AM on February 27, 2007

If you haven't already read it try "The Man Who Gave Up His Name". The story made me feel good and satisfied and looking forward to tomorrow with a clinched fist and a smile. The author is Jim Harrison, you might recognize him. He is probably best known for the novella later movie "Legends of the Fall". I find stories about life empower me more than someone coaching me on what to do.
posted by bkeene12 at 11:46 AM on February 27, 2007

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson is exactly what you need to read.
posted by ND¢ at 11:47 AM on February 27, 2007

&sProust is good, much better than you believe if you haven't read him. I'd also recommend Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body. I think it's a pretty profound book about love.

Other suggestions: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Long, Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America by Natalie Goldberg, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson, and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.
posted by ontic at 11:48 AM on February 27, 2007

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace.
posted by miss tea at 11:51 AM on February 27, 2007

Autobiographies of people who were known for doing or thinking interesting things. Even if they might not as objective, they can be more entertaining and introspective than biographies. I really liked Ben Franklin's and John Stuart Mill's.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 11:58 AM on February 27, 2007

.. except that that link doesn't get you very far. I was trying to link to a search of books with "autobiography" in the title.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 12:01 PM on February 27, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
posted by hermitosis at 12:09 PM on February 27, 2007

The above comments are good from a literary perspective, so I'll throw something in from left field.

Since you're doing well in the bread department (as a DINKer), look for books that will turn your financial world upside down (in a good way) by recommending investment strategies.

You might try the "Rich Dad Poor Dad" series, or any other highly recommended financial tome.

Don't look for inventive, fresh applications of the English language here. Expect half-baked anecdotes, self-indulgent rags-to-riches stories, and goofy prose. You'll have to dig for the knowledge, but it's often worth it.

Above all, put your money on the line after reading. There's nothing that shakes up a yuppie lifestyle more than having a few bucks on the stock market or in real estate, keeping you awake at night.
posted by Gordion Knott at 12:11 PM on February 27, 2007

Zen and the Art of MotorCycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. An inspirational tale of one man's journey and how he discovered meaning through his own trials.

A good read and good for the soul.
posted by pezdacanuck at 12:30 PM on February 27, 2007

I second Pirsig, and also ontic's statement that Proust is much better than you believe if you haven't read him—my wife suggested I start reading him aloud at bedtime and we've both been astonished at how compelling, perceptive, and downright funny he is.
posted by languagehat at 12:36 PM on February 27, 2007

Rumi, The Structure of Magic, the Tao Te Ching and...there's some book with a guy and an ape talking philosophy, and I can't remember the title or author, and google and amazon aren't helping. Maybe someone else will recognize it.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:03 PM on February 27, 2007

@cocoagirl: That would be Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.
posted by puddleglum at 1:06 PM on February 27, 2007

The Perennial Philosophy X Aldous Huxley
Toward a Psychology of Being X Abraham Maslow
posted by bukvich at 1:13 PM on February 27, 2007

This isn't really in line with the general tone of other people's recommendatiosn, but when I feel like I'm in a rut my tendency is to set an extravagant literary goal. Last January I endeavored to read all of Philip K. Dick's novels. While I didn't manage to (I was depending on my library which only has about 25 or so of them) it really transformed my life for the time I was doing it. In this way I've also read all of Douglas Hofstadter's books in English and most of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, to give just a few examples. Really mainlining an author can transform your life as you start to really understand the person behind the writing. I recommend it to anyone who feels like they don't have a whole lot of excitement in life.

Phil Dick is especially fun to read because he's an individual with a singular number of very idiosyncratic flaws. And once you read three Dick books in a weekend (which is easy since they're all very short) you kind of feel like you've been in his head. It's a trip, to say the least.

I guess I'm placing quantity over quality, in a way, but if you read a vast quantity of something high quality I think you really win the game. Develop an obsession!

Also, read Perec's Life: A User's Manual. It'll take ages and you'll wonder why the hell you're doing it, but it is very satisfying in the end.
posted by crinklebat at 1:23 PM on February 27, 2007

I hear ya. I've searched for these kinds of books repeatedly for myself throughout my lifetime.

I have tried several of the above books: Zen and the Art of MotorCycle Maintenance, Infinite Jest (hey, I made it through the first 155 pages - I may come back to it in ten years - I did with Illuminatus!), One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and while I in no way doubt the profound effect these books can have on people's lives, I have never myself been at a point to appreciate them properly. Ironic is my high level of interest in philosophy of technology and how incredibly boring I found Zen.

At 41 years old I recently realized I had never read Dante's Inferno (after seeing a great puppet theater movie version of it) and I pulled my wife's high school copy off the shelf and I'm enjoying it immensely. Hell, I only read Candide last year (short read, but definitely one to open your eyes about 'the best of all possible worlds' overly optimistic philosophy about the world).

Recently a question was asked of me regarding the books I have read: "What book had the most influence on your life?" It's a tough question, mainly because I generally respond with 1984 but realize that I can't single out one book. The often reviled The Fountainhead had a huge impact, as did the giddily wonderful Good Omens and the outlandish Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy.

The wonderful books that take me outside myself, the ones that demand something from me, but not entirely too much, are (oddly enough) Pratchett's Discworld series. A misleadingly categorized series (they are always in scifi/fantasy) of often biting satire couched in the guise of fantasy novels, over time after reading them they become subtly intertwined with the reader and the reader starts to know characters from the series in the way you know friends, enemies and that guy you see on the street but never know his name. It's a weird answer, I admit, in response to what you are asking, but there's something more to those books than what they overtly suggest. They certainly can fuel dreams, though, well outside the fantasy world of the book.

You might also consider autobiographies of influential historical figures, or of people you are simply interested in or have respect for. Not all of them will be interesting, of course. Just because someone's made a name for themselves doesn't mean that person's life is actually interesting.

You should certainly explore your own interest in regards to this question. I sometimes find the strangest books spark my creativity and fuel my dreams.
posted by smallerdemon at 1:48 PM on February 27, 2007

I recently went back to school and had to read some early stories by Saul Bellow for a lit course. They're haunting, especially "Looking for Mr. Green" and "Something to Remember Me By."

Also, Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King really took me out of myself when I read it for the first time in my twenties. It's about a guy like yourself who seems to have everything going for him, but his pleasant life is driving him nuts. He runs off to Africa, has tons of adventures with animals and people, and becomes the king of a small tribe. If words have ever made you happy, you'll experience that again in this book.

The book Your Money Or Your Life (Robin and Dominguez) can be transformative for people at any stage of life and financial awareness. It's as much about personal and spiritual fulfillment as it is about money. Take up the ideas that appeal to you, forget the rest.

Also, you sound thoughtful. Writing your own book might be a good use of your latent creative impulses.
posted by frosty_hut at 1:52 PM on February 27, 2007

You may think this is from left field, but try Microserfs.
posted by TorontoSandy at 2:21 PM on February 27, 2007

Chess Garden -- Brooks Hansen
posted by subajestad at 2:22 PM on February 27, 2007

The Proud Highway, the first volume of Hunter Thompson's collected letters. That book made me want to grab a rifle and take to the streets.
posted by COBRA! at 2:31 PM on February 27, 2007

I like crinklebat's suggestion, to read everything somebody has written.
posted by jayder at 2:34 PM on February 27, 2007

Take some of that dual income and buy (1) and Oxford English Dictionary and (2) The Complete Works of Shakespeare. If you're new to Shakespeare, it will be touch going at first, and you'll have to look up tons of words (read the plays chronologically -- the earliest ones aren't the best ones, so they're good to cut your chops on), but soon enough you'll get used to Elizabethan English.

Shakespeare will open you up in so many ways: he'll pound you with startling, original, beautiful language; he'll make you laugh and cry; and he'll tweak your intellect.

It's NOT true that his plays are better to see than read. It is true that his plays are DIFFERENT to see than read. Both methods have their charms and challenges. Reading allows you to linger over words, phrases and ideas.

Once you're knocked through Shakespeare, try reading some of Richard Dawkins's books on Darwinian Evolution; some history by Daniel Boorstin; and some Sociology by Jared M. Diamond.

Fiction? Here are some (non-lowbrow) books that will rip you out of yourself and deposit you elsewhere (and leave half of your there when you're finished reading them): "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (Garcia Marquez), "Lonesome Dove" (Larry McMurtry), "War and Peace" (Tolstoy), and ... oh, you already know about Proust.
posted by grumblebee at 2:54 PM on February 27, 2007

a language older than words by derrick jensen.
cosmic trigger I by robert anton wilson, and if you like that then also cosmic trigger II (but not III!) and prometheus rising.
2nd rumi (the essential rumi is a nice collection).
and it's cheesy, but i find the artist's way by julia cameron inspiring.
posted by lgyre at 2:57 PM on February 27, 2007

Read Into Thin Air. Then climb Mt. Everest.
posted by PEAK OIL at 5:03 PM on February 27, 2007

"middlesex" by jeffrey eugenides.
"the egyptologist" by arthur phillips
"the amazing adventures of kavalier and klay" by michael chabon
"the moor's last sigh" by salman rushdie
"we were orphans" by kazuo ishiguro
"the great gatsby" by f scott fitzgerald
"the sun also rises" by ernest hemingway
"into the whirlwind" by evgenia ginzburg
"siddhartha" by herman hesse

these are all wonderful. page-turning, well written, engaging, thought provoking, and beautiful.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:34 PM on February 27, 2007

I really love this book, The Heart of Emerson's Journals. It's always good for inspiration. It contains small entries, excerpted from Emerson's diaries, and they are very good reading.
posted by jayder at 5:51 PM on February 27, 2007

Walden Two by B. F. Skinner.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:24 PM on February 27, 2007

A "safe yuppie life" you say?
How about Fight Club? (But you've probably already seen the movie.)

Someone mentioned "Wind, Sand and Stars", that is an exceptional book about what it means to be alive and engaged.
Buddha left his palace to go sit under a tree. Perhaps the only true way to overcome the sort of stagnation you may be experiencing is to leave yourself and go do something dangerous or foolish.

In lieu of actually doing anything about the symptoms, such as joining the Marines or hitchhiking to Alaska, a good book from the "war hero" genre can simulate the effect.
For that I'd recommend The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). It' s a book that's got it all, war tales, hardship, valour, ingenuity, leadership, charisma, and a philosophical bent as well. And it's even topically relevant, what with all the action in the Iraq. Knowing some detailed tidbits about the history and culture of the region could score some points at the ol' cocktail party.

Though for something more relaxed and poignant, perhaps Montainge's "Essays"?
posted by archae at 9:33 PM on February 27, 2007

John Adams by David McCullough was a great inspiration for me. Adams is typically overshadowed by the likes of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, yet his contributions are in some ways more impressive. McCullough's portrait of Adams the man--his ideals, commitment, sacrifices and humanity--spurred me forward when I read it several years ago. I found it an "invigorating" character study . . . perhaps you will too.
posted by magnislibris at 10:11 PM on February 27, 2007

Going Native by Stephen Wright, a book about leaving a safe yuppie life behind.
posted by OmieWise at 4:11 AM on February 28, 2007

Perhaps (mefi member, krark's) The Simple Dollar's 10 Books that Changed My Life series (5 books to go) might be worth reading.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:06 AM on February 28, 2007

I just started reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and I love it already. I would also recommend anything by Alain de Botton (he writes non-fiction, modern day philosophy); I started with Status Anxiety by him and it really changed the way I look at the world, and at my safe yuppie life.
posted by lagreen at 10:08 AM on February 28, 2007

It's a fascinating (and, I hope, helpful) exercise for me to list ten books that have changed my life. Arbitrary rules: I'm not including that the books that REALLY changed my life, which are the books I read (or that were read to me) as a child. Books by C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carrol, A.A. Milne, and company partly made me who I am today. But while these are great books, they were formative for me because I encountered them when I was so young.

Same with the big art-book collection my parents had: diving into Picasso and Rembrandt was a wonderful experience at the age of five, and it's tempting to include such books on the list below, but I'm going to forgo the temptation, because I first discovered those books as a child.

I'm also excluding technical books. Some really have changed me, sometimes even profoundly, even in ways that go beyond the practicalities of my jobs. But I doubt there's much benefit here to listing books like, "Actionscript, the Definitive Guide," so I'll forgo doing that, too.

Every book I read changes my life somehow. Below, I'll only list books that changed it in a huge way, and in a way that I can at least somewhat describe.

Ten Books That Changed My Life
1. "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry
3. "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

These three opened my mind to what the novel could do. They aren't experimental books, so I don't mean "what the novel could do" in terms of the many forms it can take. They are straight-forward narratives ("War and Peace" pushes this boundary somewhat, in that it contains both fiction and essay sections.) But all three books -- more than any of the other wonderful novels I've read -- engulfed me in fictional worlds and refused to let completely return to my own world. I live with the characters as if they are deal loved ones. These books taught me that it's possible to fully experience life within the pages of a story.

4. "Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter.

This is "Alice in Wonderland" for grownups. It's like being thrust inside the mind of a manic, playful genius. This book, which I read in my early 20s, taught me how much fun intellectual play could be. (I eagerly await by Hofstadter's new book.)

5. "Uncle Vanya" by Anton Chekhov
6. "King Lear" by William Shakespeare

My two favorite plays. I've read them both dozens of times and I never get tired of them. I haven't yet had the good fortune to direct "Lear," but I've directed "Vanya" twice, both times performing in it too, and I still never tire of it. I see every production of it I can see -- of "Lear" too. Both of these plays contain multitudes. In a way, they are similar to the novels I listed above. They seem to contain the entirety of human experience. Yet a play is a different form from a novel, so you get human experience in a really compact form -- told only with dialog.

These plays are largely responsible for why I only direct classics. Show me a modern play with the richness of these two, and I'll direct it. These plays spoiled me for anything else. They showed me what dramatic writing could do -- and what it so seldom does.

I recommend the David Mamet and Micheal Frayn adaptations of "Vanya." The Brian Friel one is great too, but it's much more of an adaptation than the other too. (Mamet calls his an adaptation, but it's basically a translation.) Once you've read these, try watching these filmed versions: "Vanya on 42nd Street", "Country Life" and Woody Allen's "September" (The one that strays the furthest from the source.)

I recommend watching the Olivier and Ian Holm versions of "Lear."

7. "How Children Fail" by John Holt
8. "Summerhill" by A.S. Neill

I've been a teacher most of my adult life, and these two books expanded my mind about what teaching (and learning) -- at its best -- can be. ("How Children Fail" should be called "How Teachers Fail.") "Summerhill" especially will challenge many readers. It's a bit dated (and, alas, a bit sexist), but it clashes -- in an exciting way -- with most modern ideas of how schools work.

9. "A Practical Handbook for the Actor" by Melissa Bruder and others.
10. "Games People Play" by Eric Berne

These books make me rethink what makes people tick. Both books, in my view, present the mechanics of "toy people." In other words, they don't describe the way real people work (Some would argue with this, especially in reference to "Games People Play"). Rather, they present a simplified -- provocative -- version of human psychology, which seems close to the truth (in the same way that Newtonian Physics is close to the truth). These books are great for anyone who is interested in psychology, fiction writing or acting.

Runners Up

11. "Elements of Style" by William Strunk and E.B. White
12. "Politics and the English Language" an essay by George Orwell (online)

Really, these two belong on the main list, but I've limited myself to 10 on that. These two books, more than any others, taught me how to write. There's a really fun response/criticism of "Elements of Style" called "Spunk and Bite" by Arthur Plotnik.

This essay by Mark Twain also helped form me as a writer (and it's funnier than any of the above suggestions).

Real Runners Up
1. Essays by George Orwell
2. Short stories by Raymond Carver

There are many masters of the short form (Cheever, Updike, Atwood, Lopate, Montaigne, Mamet, Hemingway), but Orwell and Carver opened me up -- more than any other writers -- to what just a few words can do. Orwell wrote the two best personal essays (in my opinion, of course), "Shooting an Elephant" (online) and "Such, Such Were The Joys" (online). Carver is the Harold Pinter of short stories. He tells more between the lines than within them. How does he do this?

3. All the rest of Shakespeare's plays
4. All the rest of Chekhov's major plays (Mamet for "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard", Frayn for "The Seagull" and "Wild Honey."
5. "The Birthday Party" and "The Homecoming" by Harold Pinter. Pinter, to me, is the greatest 20th Century playwright. He crafted a whole new mode of writing -- just as dense as Shakespeare and Chekhov, but with much sparser language and greater mystery.

6. "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany of Desire" by Michael Pollan. These books changed the way I think about one of my favorite activities: eating. I've read them too recently to include them on the main list. I'm not sure how long they'll stay in my brain. But they feel like keepers.

7. "Being With Children," by Phillip Lopate. Another eye-opening book about teaching -- this one more emotionally profound to me than the two on the main list, which were drier and more "scientific." Lopate also has a fantastic essay (collected in one of his anthologies) called "Chekhov for Children." It's about -- guess what -- directing a production of "Uncle Vanya" with elementary-school kids as the actors.

8. "The Song of Ice and Fire" series, by George R. R. Martin. This series (not yet finished) is, to me, what "Lord of the Rings" should have been but wasn't. Martin's world view is much more complex than Tolkien's -- gray instead of black and white. This is a fantasy series that lures in people who, like me, don't like swords-and-sorcery books. It's not as good as "War and Peace," but it's first-rate genre writing.

9. "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. If you sort of understand Darwin but haven't delved deeply into his theories, do yourself a favor and read this book. When you have a deep, gut understanding of Natural Selection (which Dawkins will help you achieve), your outlook on life will surely be altered forever.

10. "Deadwood." Okay, this isn't a book, so I've left it for last. But I'm convinced that one day it will be recognized as one of the best works of fiction, ever. I'd place it up there with "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Lonesome Dove." You can read the scripts online, here.
posted by grumblebee at 1:34 PM on February 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't know if this has already been mentioned, but there's nothing more 'safe' and 'yuppie' than escaping that kind of life into a .....BOOK. Go to a third world country. Yes, you can do that. It won't be safe, and truly roughing it if only temporarily is pretty much the opposite of yuppie.
posted by who else at 5:18 PM on March 1, 2007

Go to a third world country. Yes, you can do that. It won't be safe, and truly roughing it if only temporarily is pretty much the opposite of yuppie.

I'd say there's nothing more safe and yuppie than being an American trekking through third world countries.
posted by jayder at 5:48 PM on March 1, 2007

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