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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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My Enduring Love of Books (and a few that changed my life!)

I was five years old when my mother taught me to read.  She was fearless enough to teach me at home before homeschooling was an almost-mainstream industry, and her proactive interest in my education helped me become the person I am today.  From kindergarten to high school, I was able to digest information and learn life’s necessary subjects (and sometimes not so necessary, I still haven’t used algebra outside of school) at my own pace.  When I understood something well, I had the option of blasting through several days’ worth of assignments in an afternoon, freeing up space for later in the week.  If a subject was more of a challenge, there were no rigid timetables pushing us to close the books before my comprehension was complete. It wasn’t my intent to turn this entry into a homeschooling bugle, but I’m proud of the way I learned the fundamentals before college.  And I say all of the above to say this: books have always been a huge part of my life.  As I said, I learned to read at age five, starting easy with large-print, small-word selections out of a children’s Bible.  By age seven, I was cracking open and devouring books written in print much too small for my young eyes, and I have a feeling that it was this early and insatiable appetite for the written word that left me as blind as a bat in the present day without corrective lenses.

On principle, all books were and are created equal to me.  Some are of course written better than others, but I’ll give most any written work a chance before I pass judgment on it.  Except for Twilight.  I would need a very large cash incentive to read Twilight(Is that joke already too dated?  What pop culture phenomenon do people love to hate right now?  I spent the summer in India and I’m out of the snark loop.)  With this and similar exceptions,  I grew up reading fiction and non-fiction with equal interest.  The ghostwritten Hardy Boys series of detective stories was the first series to grab me by the imagination and hang on tight.  While my peers in the early and mid-nineties were trading Pokemon cards in an effort to “collect ‘em all,” I could be found sprawled across the living room floor trying to read ‘em all.  As I grew a little older, I traced Frank and Joe Hardy’s literary ancestry back through time to a small sitting room at 221B Baker Street, and my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories began long before Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch made them mainstream again.  But I loved more than just detective novels...

Well-wrought fiction might have been my first love, but I also read non-fiction books in large numbers.  Growing up, one of my favorite things to do on a slow day was to pull a volume of the encyclopedia off of the shelf and read articles at random.  The feel and smell of the old volumes are still fresh in my mind.  One more plus to homeschooling was the time I had after regular subjects for self-directed study of any topics I found interesting.  I was always drawn most strongly to a smattering of famous or colorful historic figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Stonewall Jackson, or to oddball topics like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, but there was rarely a day that went by when I wasn’t learning something new about something.  My present love of non-fiction is almost stronger than my love of pure fiction, manifesting itself in near-mania for books (and now also blogs) about apologetics, cinema history, travel, martial arts, kinesiology, body chemistry and more.

The joy of reading and self-directed study always felt impinged by my college studies, which monopolized my time to the exclusion of most activities I found enjoyable.  The year in which I failed to finish a single book from beginning to end ranks as one of the most miserable periods of my life thus far, and was reflected in my attitude at the time.  If anything made me resent college, it was that my personal “college experience” was not one of learning as much as it was the memorization and parroting of data for its own sake.  I resorted to purchasing audiobooks on iTunes in a last-ditch effort to get a book fix during my lengthy, twice-daily commutes between home and the campus.

Since my graduation in the early summer, I have not had assignments every night or needed to get up before the sun every morning to finish whatever assignments I could not complete the previous evening.  That is to say, I haven’t had to; now, I have the beautiful freedom to do so because I simply want to get up early and read or write for a few hours while the house is quiet and I can savor the taste of the coffee as the sun rises outside my window.  The freedom is, well, freeing.  Much like I stockpile one or two gourmet candy bars every week in anticipation of my Saturday cheat day (life is too short for Hershey's), the last semester of school saw me on eBay and Craigslist stocking up on used, five-dollar hardbacks of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and more of my favorite writers.  Much like the promise of a weekend treat, I eagerly resuming my old reading habits.

Now, to bring this runaway mine cart back to the hill station where I originally intended it to arrive.

As books regained their place as a natural part of daily life, I read a few that hit me between the eyes with their depth and the authors’ powerful perceptions.  But there were more still that didn’t settle for a mere blow to the head--a few lowered their aim by about eighteen inches and struck to the heart.  The kind of books that burrowed into my soul and refused to leave.  It seems a shame to keep them to myself, and I wanted to provide a list of them and the impact they made on my heart and mind.

The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson

"In fact, carbohydrates are not required in the human diet for survival the way fat and protein are." - Mark Sisson

I list this book first because it helped me to better enjoy the others.  A little over a year ago, I was on the fast-track toward clinical obesity.  I was fifty pounds overweight, I had asthma and a bizarre butt-to-calf ratio that made finding jeans a quest for rare and exotic species of trouser.  It became clear to me that my situation had gone beyond the “lay off desserts for a while” phase and warranted a serious change in lifestyle.

Oh no, here Steven goes again.  I thought he dropped the whole paleo thing.  Please, God, not another rant about wheat...

Enter Mark Sisson and The Primal Blueprint.

Mark Sisson is a former Olympic marathoner who fought an uphill battle against IBS and other uncomfortable problems for most of his career.  After injuries forced him out of the marathoning game, he returned to his first love of nutritional science and researched in earnest to find out what makes the human body work most optimally.  Mark’s blog, Mark's Daily Apple, and later his book, are the sum total of everything he has learned and put into practice.  Not only has he not had IBS in years, but at age 59, he looks better (and performs better athletically) than most thirty year-olds.  Sisson’s material outlines the differences between the diet and lifestyle by which early mankind sustained itself until the agricultural revolution and the rise of domesticated wheat and cereal grains as the staves of life for earth’s oldest empires.  The science is sound, and the presentation is so relatable that even a right-brainer like me can understand it.  By following Mark’s guidelines for a lifestyle of habitual, healthy exercise and a grain-free diet rich in animal protein, vegetables and fruit, I didn’t just “lose a few pounds,” I lost fifty pounds and haven’t felt a single allergy or asthmatic wheeze in over a year.

Sisson’s book remains one of the seminal works published in the field of “ancestral health,” and by reading his book and blog I was introduced to other stanchions of a rapidly-growing movement of individuals willing to take the non-conventional route back to health and human potential.

Since first reading Sisson, my opinions on diet have evolved.  It worked so well for me that in my enthusiasm I was often impatient with people who stuck to the tired conventional wisdom that saturated fat was inherently unhealthy (it isn’t) and that whole grains were healthy (they’re not).  My attitude has finally softened, and I even allow myself the luxury of one day a week “off” to have some ice cream or nachos.  Or both.  But the principles of The Primal Blueprint remain true, and based on Mark Sisson’s advice, I feel better and look better than I ever have in my life.

The Gnoll Credoby J. Stanton

“If you can’t eat it, wear it, wield it, or carry it, leave it behind.” - The Gnoll Credo

The Gnoll Credo is a book of philosophy wrapped in a thin veneer of fictional prose.  Another prominent figure in the field of ancestral health and nutrition, though slightly less well-known than the likes of Mark Sisson or Robb Wolf, J. Stanton’s work hints at a personal conviction that quality supersedes quantity.  Stanton doesn’t write often, but when he does, his online articles are flawlessly composed, with obsessively cited sources to back up every conclusion.  Stanton is an interesting figure as a person also, taking great care to never reveal his face in any of his more personal stories or adventure logs.  I have exchanged emails with Stanton on several occasions, and he never fails to be an engaging, friendly and willing dispenser of excellent advice and information.

So, what is The Gnoll Credo about?  It’s about us.  It’s about our priorities and how we have them completely wrong in the backwards arrangement that we accept as daily, modern life.  Stanton introduces a “primitive” race called gnolls (humanoid hyenas) within the context of other accepted fantasy elements, and one gnoll in particular is befriended by a university researcher who, by venturing to the edge of civilization to learn about gnolls, is instead given insight into his own species through the observations of a gnoll named Gryka.

I read the book in a couple of sittings, and the ending left me experiencing a moment of clarity that I usually only have after a stint in India.  Through The Gnoll Credo’s spare prose, I gained a fresh insight into the ridiculousness and over-complications of many accepted facts of everyday life in pampered, American culture.  The Gnoll Credo is about practical pragmatism, about removing distractions and questioning accepted notions to see if life might not be better without them.  The book’s take on life was monumental.

A Tale of Three Kings, by Gene Edwards

It might seem odd that my love of Christian apologetics runs parallel to my extreme interest in a branch of nutritional science usually given in an evolutionary context, but it does.  Gene Edwards was introduced to me by some Sunday school teachers at my church when I was twelve or thirteen, and even then his words were so meaningful that I returned to his books ten years later.

A Tale of Three Kings uses three examples from scripture as the models for leadership within the Church.  Saul, David and Absalom are all presented as archetypes that continue to be seen in the Church today.  Saul was an unbroken leader, willful and disobedient, but nonetheless anointed by God for a purpose.  Less than perfect leader though he was, Saul’s ultimate purpose as a leader was to be God’s instrument for breaking David.  David typifies a broken leader--an individual whom God allows to experience pain, heartbreak and exile until no more selfishness or personal insecurity remains.  What is left is an empty vessel.

Edwards’ expounding of the breaking down process was revelatory to me.  It explained much of what I have seen in the church, and what I continue to observe among individuals.  Even his description of David’s early life, before Saul’s wrongful accusations and his own exile, was a moving description of solitude being a tool of God’s in order to draw us closer to him and his leading.

The youngest son of any family bears two distinctions: He is considered to be both spoiled and uninformed. Usually little is expected of him. Inevitably, he displays fewer characteristics of leadership than the other children in the family. As a child, he never leads. He only follows, for he has no one younger on whom to practice leadership.

So it is today. And so it was three thousand years ago in a village called Bethlehem, in a family of eight boys. The first seven sons of Jesse worked near their father’s farm. The youngest was sent on treks into the mountains to graze the family’s small flock of sheep.

On those pastoral jaunts, this youngest son always carried two things: a sling and a small, guitarlike instrument. Spare time for a sheepherder is abundant on rich mountain plateaus where sheep can graze for days in one sequestered meadow. But as time passed and days became weeks, the young man became very lonely. The feeling of friendlessness that always roamed inside him was magnified. He often cried. He also played his harp a great deal. He had a good voice, so he often sang. When these activities failed to comfort him, he gathered up a pile of stones and, one by one, swung them at a distant tree with something akin to fury.

When one rock pile was depleted, he would walk to the blistered tree, reassemble his rocks, and designate another leafy enemy at yet a farther distance.

He engaged in many such solitary battles.

This shepherd-singer-slinger also loved his Lord. At night, when all the sheep lay sleeping and he sat staring at the dying fire, he would strum upon his harp and break into quiet song. He sang the ancient hymns of his forefathers’ faith. While he sang he wept, and while weeping he often broke out in abandoned praise—until mountains in distant places lifted up his praise and tears and passed them on to higher mountains, until they eventually reached the ears of God.

I first digested this book as an audiobook during one of my pre-dawn drives to school.  The opening chapters had me shedding tears into my coffee before the sun even rose.  I realize that my reaction to A Tale of Three Kings might be different than someone else’s, based on my own experiences, but I nonetheless recommend it as a beautiful and insightful look into examples of how God has worked before, and how he might similarly be working in your own life.

The Prisoner in the Third Cell, by Gene Edwards

Gene Edwards wrote another book in a similar style to A Tale of Three Kings, emulsifying scripture with scriptural truth to create an insightful and prosaic synthesis.  While A Tale of Three Kings was concerned primarily with brokenness, The Prisoner in the Third Cell is about trust.  Specifically, it is about trusting God to have a purpose.  The example Edwards uses is John the Baptist.

John the Baptist did everything “right” by the standards of any human observer.  He lived an ascetic life of prayer, fasting and self-deprivation so that there would be as little as possible standing between his heart and the leading of God.  He baptized Jesus Christ.  He stood up for the moral rightness that Israel needed and did not have in its king.  And for his pains, he was imprisoned and beheaded.  John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah or if John should wait for another, which hints at the doubt that even he experienced while imprisoned.  Jesus gave an answer in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, but verse seven specifies that Christ did not call John the “greatest of men born of women” until after John’s disciples had left his presence.  John therefore never even knew how highly Jesus regarded his service.

We have the benefit of perspective in a survey of John the Baptist’s life.  This perspective, expanded by scriptural context and two-thousand years of objective distance from the furor that surrounded John’s well-publicized arrest and execution, is a luxury which we do not have in our own lives.  But the same principles apply to our own lives as they did in John’s.  There was a purpose to John’s existence, though he never knew it while he was alive.  He felt punished for his service, but Christ proclaimed him as one of the greatest men who ever lived.

Just...read this book.

The Four-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

“The commonsense rules of the ‘real world’ are a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions.” - Timothy Ferriss

I read this book within days of graduating from college.  Author Timothy Ferriss gets a lot of negative attention for his "self-publicity" and advocation of outsourcing.  His extensive self-experimentation in the realm of athletic training and physical conditioning, condensed into a four-hundred page brick of a book entitled The Four-Hour Body, has also earned him a mixed reputation.  In my own opinion, Ferriss' motivation in both books is the same: results.  No frills, no distractions, just pure results.  Love him or hate him, he's an unashamed pragmatist.  His blog is as interesting as his books.

The Four-Hour Workweek is about targeting a market and building a business while making optimum use of time and resources.  It's unconventional, but inspirational to anyone fresh out of college.  I applied a few principles to everyday life, and the results have been great.  Now, all I have to decide is what I want to do with the rest of my life, and perhaps I can make use of the rest of the book.
Addendum:
I've been listening back through an audiobook of Harlan Ellison's short stories.  Ellison is a brilliant writer, and his interviews are a blast to listen to if you find yourself with some spare time on youtube at some point.  This fun quote in particular comes from Paladin of the Lost Hour and adequately sums up my opinion of my own home library:

"Many years ago," Gaspar said, taking out a copy of Moravia's The Adolescents and thumbing it as he spoke, "I had a library of books, oh, thousands of books -- never could bear to toss one out, not even the bad ones -- and when folks would come to the house to visit they'd look around at all the nooks and crannies stuffed with books; and if they were the sort of folks who don't snuggle with books, they'd always ask the same dumb question."

He waited a moment for a response and when none was forthcoming (the sound of china cups on sink tile), he said, "Guess what the question was."From the kitchen, without much interest: "No idea.""They'd always ask it with the kind of voice people use in the presence of large sculptures in museums. They'd ask me, 'Have you read all these books?'" He waited again, but Billy Kinetta was not playing the game. "Well, young fella, after a while the same dumb question gets asked a million times, you get sorta snappish about it. And it came to annoy me more than a little bit. Till I finally figured out the right answer.

"And you know what that answer was? Go ahead, take a guess."
Billy appeared in the kitchenette doorway. "I suppose you told them you'd read a lot of them but not all of them."
Gaspar waved the guess away with a flapping hand. "Now what good would that have done? They wouldn't know they'd asked a dumb question, but I didn't want to insult them, either. So when they'd ask if I'd read all those books, I'd say, 'Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you've already read?'"