In the past two years, I’ve been reading more. The following books were not only highly readable and influential, but in some cases even transformative.

The Warmth of Other Suns, for instance, by Isabel Wilkerson, permanently altered my thinking about race. The book tells “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” which took place from roughly 1915 through 1975, during which millions of black Americans left the Jim Crow oppression of the South and came North, East and West looking for a better life. If you’re at all serious about racial equity and feel an urgency about improving race relations in this country, reading this book is a good place to start. 

Wilkerson, by the way, was an Oak Park resident when she started writing it.

Slavery, whose consequences still haunt us to this day, has been called America’s Original Sin. That’s true, but it was Original Sin Part II. Part I was our treatment of Native Americans. To understand how much we still need to learn from indigenous peoples, I suggest reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. An environmental biology professor and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, someone with a foot planted firmly in the worlds of modern science and native wisdom, she makes a compelling case that we must learn from Native American culture if we hope to save this planet, by changing our approach to the natural world — from exploitation to sustainability, from seeing the world as an enemy that must be dominated and conquered to seeing it is a generous giver of abundant gifts.

Into the Magic Shop, a memoir by James Doty, neurosurgeon and professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, is about a troubled eighth-grader from a dysfunctional family in 1968, whose life course was altered when he entered a magic shop in Lancaster, California, and met Ruth, who taught him the secrets of his own mind through what is now called Mindfulness Meditation. Doty became an expert on the human brain, but didn’t fully grow up until he learned Ruth’s final lesson, much later in life, about opening the heart. Today he is the director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) and a board member of the Dalai Lama Foundation.

“We are on a journey of connection,” Doty writes, “our collective journey toward greater compassion and ever-greater humanity.” And he quotes the Dalai Lama: “Love and compassion are necessities; without them, humanity cannot survive.” 

“How can humanity survive?” you could say, has been the motivating inquiry of my reading these past two years. You might also say “Finding ways to accelerate personal transformation and human evolution” is one of the goals of that inquiry.

Acceleration is at the heart of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book, “Thank You for Being Late – An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”

Life is accelerating, he says, beyond anyone’s capacity to keep up (one of the reasons he thanks people for being late to appointments — it gives him a few exquisite moments of unstructured time). The unrelenting pace of modern life leaves many people feeling anxious, overwhelmed and left behind. The culture we live in, which Friedman dubs “The Machine,” is accelerating, simultaneously, on three main fronts: technology, globalization, and climate change. Some of this is exciting and some of it is terrifying, potentially planet threatening but also potentially planet saving.

This affects all of our lives. How do we respond? Instead of “speeding up” and trying to stay ahead of an exponentially accelerating curve, which Friedman says is impossible anyway, he suggests, counterintuitively, slowing down and getting back in touch with our formational values. For him, that meant returning to his hometown in a suburb of Minneapolis — St. Louis Park, which bears a striking resemblance to Oak Park, including the population breakdown: St. Louis Park is 58 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American.

Why is Friedman an optimist?

“We will get the best of these technologies,” he writes, “only if we don’t let them distract us from making these deep human connections, addressing these deep human longings, and inspiring these deep human energies. And whether we do that depends on all the stuff you can’t download — the high five from a coach, the praise from a mentor, the hug from a friend, the hand up from a neighbor, the handshake from a rival, the totally unsolicited gesture of kindness from the stranger, the smell of a garden and not the cold stare of a wall.”

 In other words, the strong, formational values we learn in healthy communities — like St. Louis Park … or Oak Park and River Forest. 

“I am convinced that if we can just achieve the minimum level of political collaboration to develop the necessary social technologies to work through it, keep our economies open, and keep lifting learning for everyone, a better life will become more available than ever to more people than ever — and the second quarter of the 21st century could be an amazing time to be alive.”

During his trip back to St. Louis Park, Friedman drove past his old neighborhood, and the biggest change was in the trees. “A half century later, all the trees had grown tall and thick, with long branches. … Those trees and I had both grown up and out from the same topsoil, and the most important personal, political, and philosophical lesson I took from the journey that is this book is that the more the world demands that we branch out, the more we each need to be anchored in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities. We must be enriched by that topsoil, and we must enrich it in turn.”

Are we enriching our topsoil here in Oak Park and River Forest? 

Are we being enriched by it?

There are two more books to discuss, but those require a separate column.

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