Hello world! After more than a year, I’m writing on this blog again. And what better way to celebrate than by sharing the joy of two books I’ve recently read.
I’ve been sick with the flu this week – too sick to go to the office, to get out of bed, too sick to even eat much. But I can’t sleep all day long, so in the meantime (between intense bouts of coughing fits) I’ve read one of the thick books I’ve had on my shelf a while, Walter Isaacson’s epic biography Steve Jobs. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about another book I finished a few weeks back: Claire Dunn’s My Year Without Matches. Both are must-reads, for very different reasons.
My Year Without Matches
Claire Dunn’s book charts her year in the bush, surviving by making her own fire, shelter & food – and confronting some demons along the way. Dunn’s descriptions of her physical and psychological challenges are stunningly evocative. Her experience was so unlike anything I can imagine, yet her words are powerful enough to give readers an intimate sense of her experience: the sights, sounds, smells and feelings.
It’s Dunn’s range of emotions, and her honesty about them, that makes this book so intriguing. I often feel that in our urban, relatively easy lives we don’t actually know how we feel at all. That we aren’t even in touch with ourselves enough to know whether we’re drowning, swimming or surfing on happiness, sadness or other more complex emotions.
Dunn was feeling some of that too, when she made the transition from volunteer forest activist to professional advocate with The Wilderness Society. The highs and lows of grassroots campaigning are ironed out in an office environment. Somehow everything shifts a bit, without you expecting or knowing. As Dunn puts it:
“Everything changed once I was on the payroll. Gone were the spirited bush missions, the tribe, the magic. This was city campaigning by computer, sensible and sedate. The goals grew hairier as the ground crew grew thinner. Until it was just me. I tried to bring the magic back, upping the pace, working longer hours, telling myself what a privilege it was to have this job…. But the truth was I didn’t feel passionate anymore. I just felt employed.”
This searingly honest admission could be the subject of another whole book about the transition from being a volunteer to a professional working in a non-government organisation. The sacrifices you make that no-one tells you about before-hand. It’s different when you start your own organisation and can make a living out of it, but when you put a natural-born campaigner in an environment with so much structure, rules, hierarchy, computers, meetings and office work, it isn’t always as fulfilling as you expect.
After reading Dunn’s book, I too want to spend more time in nature. Maybe not a whole year – but at least more weekends! Because she’s right: part of our power as campaigners comes from a deep love for what we’re trying to save. You can’t fight for something you don’t understand. And as environmentalists, we’re depriving ourselves of a massive source of power, strength and wisdom if we deprive ourselves of our connection with the natural world.
Whether you’re involved in the environment movement or not, you’ll get a lot out of reading My Year Without Matches. Dunn’s bush experience is extraordinary enough in itself, but it’s her beautiful writing that will keep you turning the pages long into the night.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
One of Claire Dunn’s chapters opens with a quote from Harold Thurman:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
This quote is as fitting as any for the transition between books.
While Dunn’s book chronicles a year of her life over the course of four seasons, Isaacson’s covers the lifetime of a man who changed the world many times over.
Both books, however, highlight an essential part of the human spirit that can’t be quashed: the part of us that demands, loudly, that we follow our dreams and our passions despite society telling us we can’t.
I truly loved Isaacson’s book. I’m an avid Mac-user, and I obviously knew Jobs had been pretty influential in the tech world. But until I read this book I confess I really didn’t have a clue just how much his genius had shaped the world of music, movies, content, and technology.
Steve Jobs was a complex person. He was often nasty and vindictive. Not all his decisions helped the world make progress. Isaacson’s book is a warts-and-all account of his life and personality, which makes it far more interesting than a glowing one-sided account and reminds us that brilliant people aren’t brilliant at everything.
I learnt a lot from reading it, about creativity, management, leadership, the history of the products I use everyday, and a person who deserves to be remembered.
Dunn’s book, and Isaacson’s, reminded me that when life doesn’t feel quite right anymore, it’s probably time to shake things up. After all, as Steve Jobs said: “It is better to be a pirate than join the Navy.”