What to read?

readingDecember galloped in this year from who knows where. Maybe you, like me, felt less than ready for it. I blame the sensation on political events, especially in the US. So much feels out of kilter and unpredictable, and I wish I could turn the clock back or at least slow time down a bit.

I’ve been pondering three new blog posts : on editorials, on speech-writing, and on cover letters for job applicants. Sooner or later, most of us have to tackle at least one of these forms of persuasion, and cover letters all about ourselves are hard for everybody. But for now, I thought I’d answer a question I’m asked all the time — what should I read? — because there’s nothing like the comfort of a good book. (You may also be wondering about books to buy as a present.)

Our Bodies Our Brains

In writing workshops I try to recommend books that are a good fit for the writers’ charities. I keep an eye out for lively medical writing, in particular, because many of you work for medical charities and have to explain the research to lay audiences. Also, what’s more interesting than our own bodies and all the miraculous ways in which they work, and terrifying ways in which they fail us?

I also look for books that tell great stories and use vivid language, and that are grounded in first-rate research and personal experience. That’s the kind of writing I want to encourage, for myself as well as you.

So to kick off, here’s a book about how and why our bodies can go wrong: It’s All In Your Head by consultant neurologist Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan. It’s a fresh take on psychosomatic illnesses, packed with case studies from her years of treating (or at least of trying to understand) people with mysterious seizures, migraines, paralyses, pain, and fatigue. Not everyone agrees with everything in it, but it won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2016, and it makes a powerful case for a better and kinder way of thinking about the connections between our minds and our bodies.

Books That Cross Divides

Whether you’re European or American (or both, like me, or neither) you’re probably trying to make sense of how we all got into such a political mess. You might also be working for a charity that tackles poverty head-on. There are countless causes for our woes, but growing income inequality is surely amongst the top two or three.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond, published earlier this year, has been praised high and low for throwing light on the root causes of homelessness in the US. It’s a huge and fast-growing problem that affects millions of Americans (and growing numbers of people in Britain too). Desmond knows all too well what he’s writing about. His own family was once evicted, and this MacArthur “genius” grant winner lived amongst the evicted and writes with the compassion and insight of a talented novelist. He’s also really, really good with data.

My runner-up in this category, a prize-winner published in 2012, is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. You may have seen the play at the National Theatre. The play was good. The book is even better. Like Desmond, Boo lived for months at a time with her subjects, taking great personal risks. She brings us an extraordinary story about a heart-breaking place that many of us may have flown over or driven past, but very few of us have ever really seen.

Comforting Books

If you work for a hospice or mental health charity and you’re trying to help people pick their way through loss and grief – or if you’re struggling yourself – you may take comfort from memoirs by fellow sufferers (as I do). You’ve probably read the lovely H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Two other “grief memoirs” that held me in thrall were The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, and Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.

Both books began as journals written in states of agonizing disorientation. The journals were eventually turned – with the encouragement of friends — into gorgeous memoirs. Warning: they’re not for the faint of heart. Coutts’ book, which won the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize, is about how she and her young son experienced her husband’s early death from a brain tumour. (If you work for a Hospice, it will make you feel good about your job!) Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka. Gradually she brings them back to life, for herself and for us, in a short but intense book that’s a tender portrait of an imaginative, loving family as well as a moment by moment account of devastating loss.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother died (you may have seen the Reese Witherspoon film), would sit right alongside the two books above. If you prefer your comfort sweet and light, however, you might go for Strayed’s 2012 Tiny Beautiful Things. Strayed ran an online advice column for years. Tiny Beautiful Things collects the best from the column. Somewhere in there is a problem you’ve had, or your best friend has had…and her answers may make you smile. With its short chapters and folksy style, it’s also great for the weary or time-starved reader.

Books About Mistakes

Most of us make mistakes, so it can be cheering to read about how and why we get things wrong. At least we’re not alone. The two books I’m recommending here also throw light on our assumptions about fundraising, team work, and good management. They really ought to be on every charity chief executive’s desk. Neither is new this year, but they’re both still fresh and relevant.

The first is by an eloquent American surgeon, Atul Gawande. The Checklist Manifesto, published in 2010, is in part about Gawande’s experience of errors, some of them ghastly (and not his errors, I should add), in the operating theatre. Then it widens out, covering errors in aviation and insights into why we all make mistakes at work, and how we can avoid them.

Runner up in this category would be Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Think you’re good at “sizing people up?” Or predicting who’s going to give to charity? You might think again if you read this Nobel Prize winner’s book. The Guardian published an affectionate interview with him that may tempt you to read on. Kahneman’s book isn’t always an easy read, but it’s fun, provocative, and illuminating.

Nature Books

Did you love Planet Earth? (OK, who didn’t.) Can you also tell a sparrow from a sparrow-hawk? Or do you work for a wildlife trust? Then you might love the recently published The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker.

This brainy young ornithologist has packed his book with great new bird facts. Wandering albatrosses spend almost all their time on the wing above desolate oceans, but they’re also the most faithful of all birds, with a close to zero “divorce” rate. Pigeons smell their way home using their right nostril. The expression “pecking order” means a lot when you’re looking at chickens. Some of you might say – who cares? Others will delight in these bird stories and say – who knew?

Slightly more poetic, and also fresh off the presses, is The Hidden Life of Trees, by German arborist Peter Wohlleben (and very well translated into English). It’s another “who knew” book. Who knew that trees talk to each other? The hard copy is beautifully produced – a perfect gift for the thoughtful trail wanderer, and one I just bought for an environmentalist friend.

Is That It?

That’s it. Well, almost.

People sometimes ask me to recommend a book about fundraising writing. Sixteen years after first publication, Writing for a Good Cause by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich remains my favourite friendly guide, especially for those who have to write trust proposals. It was written for an American audience and has a distinctive American tone, but the suggestions work just as well in the UK. (There’s a great chapter, for example, on what to do when you’re asked to write a major proposal at very short notice.)

Here’s my highest if most reluctant praise: every time I think about turning these blog posts into a handbook, I wonder whether Barbato and Furlich haven’t already said all that there is to say. But of course, there’s always more to say … and more examples and questions from you, the writers who matter so much. So I’ll be back in January 2017, and until then wish you the very best… come what may.

PS: I’ve provided links to author or book websites where I could find them, but not to any commercial portal. All of these books are available in the UK, most of them for very little.