THE BLOG OF
DR. JOSH C. SIMMONS
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8 BOOKS I'LL RECOMMEND TO MY DAUGHTER

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My wife and I are expecting. I've had a mental block with imagining too much of the future post-birth because up until last week we didn't know the gender. The first thing you do when writing anything in a programming language is to assign a name to the data you're working with. In order to assign a name you need to know what the thing is or does. In the case of naming a human baby (in modern times) you're expected to do this with essentially no knowledge of the small human growing in the womb - but entirely based off of the gender and the experiences of the two people that created the baby. Knowing the gender clears up some of the unknowns about the new variable and allows you to attempt naming.

In addition to naming, my mind while idling pictures a future with our new daughter. I speculate about how she might look, what her personality might be like, etc. I think about how I might best serve her as a parent in preparing her for the world.

I'm not a great communicator. The posts on this blog are probably not nearly as clearly written as they could be - or even grammatically correct (I don't use a grammar/spelling checker which is a topic for another post). One thing I've always been great at though that is kind of like communication is book recommendations. I've been thinking about what books I might recommend to my daughter and at what age I might recommend them to her.

She'll be entering a strange world - and one that's fraught with far most hostility than the one I was brought into in the early 90s. Like everything else on this blog, this list isn't perfect, but it's what I would recommend. Let's start with the book I would recommend first and the one that will probably be the most divisive.

1. The Bible (only the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

Age: 12

Quote: God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.

Whether or not my daughter chooses to continue in the faith, it is extremely important for those living in western cultures to read one of the most unfettered tellings of the hero myth that exists. Many of the myths that Americans act out in their own life are informed by the stories of the Bible - whether or not they're consciously aware of it. If you're telling yourself a story about your life, you should know what story that is - you might be able to get a peek at the ending.

Having a deep connection with spirituality enriches life. It provides a framework to understand and let go of things that aren't understandable. It adds meaning and depth to life beyond consumerism or worldly pursuits. The way I was taught these stories in Catholic school was rule and fear based. The Catholic faith I was raised with discounted the more spiritual and "felt" aspects of the faith. I hope I can tell her these stories in a way that are easy to follow (these specific books are easy to understand on the surface) and that allow her spirituality to grow. It served me well - even though the context I learned these stories in was probitive towards actual engagement with their material, they served as sort of a mnemonic that later took on an entirely different meaning.

2. On the Road (the original scroll) - Jack Kerouac

Age: 18

Quote: I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.

This book really alleviated my fear of failure when I read it. 18 is a pivotal age when plans stop being so clear. I don't want to force college on my daughter. I benefitted from it, but it's not the best path for everyone. On the Road opened my eyes to the importance of travel and of not always having concrete plans. When you're young - sometimes a vague direction is better than a plan. I've seen so many in my life suffer from failure to launch which comes from either fear of the unknown or a lack of passion. This book, read while still young and foolish, can hedge against both afflictions.

I hope this book pushes my daughter to travel broadly geographically as well as in her thinking. If my first book suggestion provides structure and dogma, this one provides the opposite of that: a license to pursue whatever you have passion for - even if it's unconventional.

3. The Hobbit- J.R.R. Tolkien

Age: 18

Quote: There is nothing like looking if you want to find something.

Another adventure travel story just like On the Road. This book moreso than OTR though is about confronting fear. Bilbo, the protagonist, is scared to leave the comfort of his home. He is called to adventure and goes more or less kicking and screaming. Through the process he stops complaining, learns to be brave, and faces his fears. I think everyone of every age can benefit from reading this book, but it bears suggesting here as "leaving home" essential reading.

4. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy - David Burns

Age: 20

Quote: Ultimately you, and only you, can make yourself consistently happy. No one else can.

If we eat poorly and don't exercise, we wouldn't expect to have a six pack. Why would we expect mental health be any different? This book is essential if you struggle with anxiety and depression, but where it really shines is building self esteem and good coping mechanisms when times are relatively calm. I don't know in what ways the world will be weird when my daughter is 20, but I hope some of the tools in this book can help her to know that she has worth and doesn't need anybody's approval to be happy.

5. Music in the Late 20th Century - Richard Taruskin

Age: 21

Quote: Living with the constant threat of annihilation was the war's lasting legacy. It cast a long shadow over the second half of the twentieth century. It was that period's dominant fact of life. No aspect of human existence or activity could possibly escape its impact.

Okay - this one needs some justification. I'd recommend this book for two reasons: to gain a more tangible understanding of history during this time period and to consider aesthetics more closely.

Writing about historical events, especially politically motivated ones is controversial and often speculative - unless one makes a serious study of the events being written about, it's very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Writing about music history - especially broad treatises such as this one, cannot be as hand-wavey as other more general history books because their writing involves, to some degree, artifacts that can be accessed by the reader. If I read a book about China's Cultural Revolution, I can't go talk to Mao Zedong and get his opinion on what I read. If I read material about George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children I can go listen to the piece and get a general sense about whether or not the author of the material is full of shit or not. This book helped me make more sense of the postwar period than any history book ever did - not the timeline and events, but the sentiment and "feel" of the era.

When I studied this book in grad school, it was constantly brought up that it was "problematic". It was "problematic" because it asserted that there were beautiful and ugly things in music and out of that value system a canon of important composers emerged. At present day, advertising, social media, and much art is intented to "challenge ideas about beauty" by asserting that ugly things are beautiful. Taruskin's work doesn't engage in that delusion - a rarity among academic work published post-2000 or so. Although everyone's sense of aesthetics varies slightly there is still a large common overlap - it is one of the last things we have in common as a culture despite those that seek to destroy it.

Although I hope the world has less ugly media when my daughter is 21 it likely won't. I hope this book serves as a buff against that, a playlist of some interesting music, and a history lesson.

6. Mastery - Robert Greene

Age: 22

Quote: Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.

If my daughter goes to college she'll be wrapping up around this time. If she doesn't, the jolt of freedom after moving out will be fading slightly and a desire to get serious about something will emerge.

Although better known for his work on recognizing and dealing with sociopaths 48 Laws of Power, I have always preferred this book. I read it during a low point in my PhD when I felt directionless. I've read the book once since then and think I'll continue to read it every few years to help codify my direction. I wish I had given it an initial read much sooner.

In the book, Greene provides a number of helpful techniques to find and progress in your vocation (i.e. NOT your job specifically). Whether my daughter chooses to pursue the creation of a family, creation of a career, or both, this book will provide guidance. What lends it extra creedence is the incredible true stories Greene tells of other masters in other domains and time periods ranging from Paul Graham to Mozart. Mastery will help my daughter hone her life's purpose and maximize her efforts towards pursuing it.

7. Enchiridion - Epictetus

Age: 23

Quote: Keep before your eyes from day to day death and exile and all things that seem terrible, but death most of all, and then you will never set your thoughts on what is low and will never desire anything beyond measure.

This is an important book that changed me when I first read it around age 30 (regret, wish I had read it much earlier). Stoicism is an overdone trope in the tech world but taken with a grain of salt, this is a worthwhile read. I chose Enchiridion over Aurelius's Meditations because Epictetus was born into slavery, Aurelius lived with every resource provided for him. Aurelius's wisdom is solid but I can't help but take it a bit unseriously because of the massive advantages he had in his life.

8. Man and His Symbols

Age: 25

Quote: Because we cannot discover God's throne in the sky with a radiotelescope or establish (for certain) that a beloved father or mother is still about in a more or less corporeal form, people assume that such ideas are "not true." I would rather say that they are not "true" enough, for these are conceptions of a kind that have accompanied human life from prehistoric times, and that still break through into consciousness at any provocation.

Wherever my daughter's journey takes her I hope she doesn't discount "all things that cannot be measured". This is a disturbing trend that I've noticed pick up in intensity over the past few years. I've seen many peers write off all things mystical or mythological as anti-science (as if the two could be separated). My hunch is that this unhealthy preclusion with quantifiables is related to increases in computer usage - a phenomenon that will only continue.

Although I believe that it's important to have a solid understanding of Judeo-Christian principles while living in the Western world, I would never push those beliefs on anyone - even my own daughter. What is of tactical and immediate importance however is the understanding of mythological patterns and archetypes.

25 seems like a good age for this book. A shift of gears as life focuses on starting a career or a family. Some self analysis at this stage is useful because it's still easy-ish to change. It only gets harder to change as you get older. By the time you're 30 - systems, careers, people, etc. reinforce your default way of being in the world. You can still do crazy things at 25 and come out of it okay even if it goes poorly for you. Best to examine and optimize - or completely change if you've lost your way, there's still time.

The risks of not doing this if it's necessary? Numerous but less visible than you may think. I commonly see one of two outcomes play out. The first and most common is a kind of silent nihilism that comes out of only having worldly motivations. Pursuing money and status in and of itself is not evil, but once that becomes the terminal focus people lose their connection to something that transcends themself. You'll see these people saying "it's okay" a lot to things that are most certainly not okay. The other common outcome is unwittingly living as an archetype and not realizing it. Going off the path is a great thing, it's what drives innovation, but you should only do it if you're after something specific - otherwise you'll just get lost. If you're acting out the Fool that's great if you're in your 20s, but society doesn't have a place for Fools in their 30s. These pitfalls can be avoided.

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