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A Few Bookish Questions With Oliver Burkeman
I’ve said quite a lot about Four Thousand Weeks recently, so it doesn’t even feel like Mr. Burkeman needs an introduction here. He writes about productivity, happiness, and time management for a number of outlets and across a number of books. This week, I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about books, reading, and writing.
A Few Bookish Questions With Oliver Burkeman
1. You're best known for your writing on happiness and productivity, with some philosophy thrown in too. Were there books or particular ideas that kickstarted your own interest in that topic?
On some level, I think I've been interested in these topics since before I was reading the kind of books that addressed them directly — which is not to say that I was a deeply reflective child, so much as that my tendency toward anxiety, and my neurotic concern with “getting more done,” started early! Being raised as a Quaker probably helped inculcate a certain interest in philosophical and spiritual topics. After that, milestone books along the way included Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, which famously starts with the observation that “life is difficult,” but that once you accept this truth, it's no longer a problem; Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart, Alan Watts's many books, including The Wisdom of Insecurity, and of course the canonical modern book on productivity, Getting Things Done by David Allen.
2. Maybe it's just me, but most of the books I read about time management and productivity fall flat. Yours, however, stuck out. What makes Four Thousand Weeks different from a "standard" self-improvement book?
Well, I can talk about how I think it has a different kind of message — that I'm trying, in a way, to guide readers to experience a shift in perspective about time that involves a form of surrender, an admission of defeat, a recognition that there's a completely unresolvable mismatch between our capacity to *want* to do an infinite amount with our lives, or to feel an infinite number of obligations, versus our utterly finite capacities to actually do things.
My argument is that accepting this defeat is unexpectedly empowering, because it's precisely when you give up (or at least partially give up) the struggle to evade the non-negotiable facts of being a finite human that you can relax into a life spent focusing on a few things you genuinely care about.
I suppose I'd also want to say that I wrote it (and I hope I'm transparent about this in the book) as an exploration of the advice I myself needed to hear, not from the point of view of someone who's got everything figured out and is now generously passing on his perfect insight to others. I think this is probably always the case with books of advice — but I don't think authors are always honest about acknowledging it.
3. Which authors and/or books have influenced your approach to writing?
In terms of nonfiction prose style, Janet Malcolm is the master. I wouldn't have the audacity to claim that my writing bears any resemblance to hers, but I don't think anyone working at the intersection of journalism and philosophy can afford not to read, say, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession or The Journalist and the Murderer.
In a different vein, the "comic sociology" of David Brooks's book Bobos In Paradise made a big impression on me, in its vivid exploration of abstract ideas in a funny way.
In terms of the daily practice of writing: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, of course; and also an old and hard-to-obtain book about the psychology of writing, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency by Robert Boice, which is about the importance of not turning writing into a huge and therefore intimidating centerpiece of your life, but working in regular, non-intimidatingly small chunks instead.
4. What are the top few must-read time management/productivity/happiness books that you recommend (besides yours!)?
David Allen's Getting Things Done (see above) is one of those books that contributed certain ideas to the field that are now so universal he probably doesn't get sufficient credit for them anymore; it's well worth returning to the source. Cal Newport's Deep Work is incredibly worthwhile too.
In a more introspective and psychotherapeutic vein, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis made a huge impression on me; the work of the spiritual teacher Joan Tollifson, above all Death: The End of Self-Improvement has been transformative as well.
5. I imagine that most of what you read is non-fiction. Is that accurate? Do you have other genres/subjects you gravitate towards for entertainment, comfort, and pure enjoyment?
Yes, it's accurate. There are *huge* gaps in my reading of literature, especially contemporary literature, of which I am definitely not proud. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction in connection with work, and then I want to relax in bed or in the bath with pure escapism, so then I revert all the way back to Sherlock Holmes, literally, or to these vast low-cost Kindle compendiums called Megapacks that collect vast quantities of short detective fiction from Victorian-era magazines. I know at least one of my close friends is appalled at the quality of prose I'll tolerate in that sort of context. But this squeezes out the time for fiction that poses any kind of a challenge at all — which I suspect most of the best fiction does.
6. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What’s next on your list?
I recently finished two books that in very different ways do a tremendous job of conveying the spirit and outlook of Zen Buddhism — John Tarrant's Bring Me The Rhinoceros, about Zen koans, and Being-Time, a commentary on the work of the ancient Zen scholar Dogen by the contemporary Buddhist teacher Shinshu Roberts. I love the sense of my perspective shifting in real time as I read books like this. Meanwhile after stumbling repeatedly on important-seeming snippets from the work of the “recovering environmentalist” and essayist Paul Kingsnorth, I bought a couple of his books, so they're waiting for me next.
7. Are there books you find yourself referencing, thinking about, and/or recommending over and over again? Basically, do you have any all-time favorites that have shaped your life and your thinking?
I fear I've probably mentioned several of them above already: Getting Things Done; Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life; anything Janet Malcolm ever wrote. Charles Eisenstein's book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible is another one — one of those books that somehow gets underneath the most basic assumptions about how we live, and thus allows you to glimpse the alternative ways in which it could be lived, right now, like pushing at the door of your cell to find that it was never locked to begin with.
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