Post-University Burn Out Recovery: Five Books Later

Post-university burn out. It’s real. I probably don’t have to try very hard to convince you of this, chances are if you’ve been to university, you’ve experienced it to some degree. My university career lasted five intense years, and in my final year I took a full courseload, worked two pretty demanding side jobs (Teaching Assistant for the Political Studies department and Managing Editor for our campus newspaper, Mars’ Hill), researched for and edited drafts for a professor’s book as my practicum, got married, moved, and went through the process of applying to work in Japan. That I survived all that alone is proof that miracles exist.

One of the things Japan has been for me is a place to recover from the intensity of university. Now, I’m usually one of those crazy people who actually loves studying and reading, but I didn’t touch a book for almost a whole year after graduating university. The only exception to this is my stacks of Japanese textbooks, but as I never studied Japanese in university, this was a new kind of mental exercise for me, and thus tolerable.

If it weren’t for Kirby’s encouraging smile, these Japanese textbooks would’ve killed me long ago.

Anyways, after my one year of recovery had passed, I decided I was ready to reintroduce myself – slowly – to the world of books. I’ve since read these five non-fiction books, each one a pretty unique and stimulating invitation back into the world of reading. I no longer exhibit signs of PTSD at the sight of a book, at least, so I think my recovery has been a tentative success. Here are the books that helped me through my recovery, in chronological order (that I read them in).

1. Then They Came For Me by Maziar Bahari

This was the first book I read to break my reading fast. I listened to an interview with Bahari on a CBC podcast, Q with Jian Ghomeshi, about his new book. You can find the podcast with the original interview here.  I remembered hearing about his imprisonment when it hit the news back in Canada, and the interview peaked my curiosity enough to order the book and re-enter the world of reading.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who, while reporting on the 2009 Iranian election, was thrown into Iran’s most notorious prison, held for months without trial, tortured and interrogated endlessly, and eventually released after substantial international pressure on his behalf. The book is a fascinating account of the days and moments leading up to his arrest, his progression of thoughts throughout his time in prison, and his awful and often absurd encounters with his personal interrogator, known only as “Rosewater.” It’s a revealing journey into the inner workings of the Iranian regime, so for those interested in Middle Eastern politics it’s a must-read, but even for those who aren’t, the personal memoir aspect of the story is gripping enough to warrant a read.

2. Underground by Haruki Murakami

Next I decided to read a book about Japan, since I’m here and all. While Murakami is typically a fiction writer, after the Tokyo gas attacks in 1995, he embarked on this project to interview victims, witnesses and even some people connected to the Aum cult that carried out the attacks. This is a relatively old book as current affairs go, first published in 1997, though not until 2000 in English. But as the last remaining fugitives wanted in connection with the attacks were only just captured recently – the last one less than two weeks ago at a manga cafe in Tokyo – thoughts about the attack of nearly two decades ago have returned to the forefront of many people’s minds.

Hearing the personal accounts of victims and witnesses makes the events very real, as though they are happening in real time as you read. I actually read a good portion of this book on the three hour bullet train ride to Tokyo, and then proceeded to make my way through the Tokyo subway system, realizing I recognized the names of subway lines and stations from the book, and was actually passing through the places where it all happened. It was more than a little surreal. Reading the reflections of former or current (at the time of interview) Aum Shinrikyo cult members was surreal in a different kind of way, as they gave small windows into the minds of people who can get so involved in such a cult in the first place. Both the victim/witness and cult member accounts provided fascinating insight into different aspects of the Japanese psyche. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding more about Japan, or even cult psychology and terrorism for that matter.

3. Poorly Made In China by Paul Midler

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I technically bought this book in China, if the Hong Kong International Airport counts. It, however, is not poorly made: as an Economist Best Book of the Year, far from. We’ve all joked about the quality of “made in China” goods, yet despite what we think of them, they’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and chances are you’re wearing or using something made in China right now.

Deep Thought was constructed to find the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe and everything.

The author shares his insights and experiences as a middle man working in China, connecting Chinese manufacturers with American importers. He specifically focuses on the progression of a business relationship between one American importer and their Chinese bath products supplier. Through many revealing and potentially rage-inducing anecdotes, he illustrates how  Chinese manufacturing is more of a game than a business, a high-level strategy game that importers often don’t even realize they’re playing. It reminds me of the moment in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when, upon learning the “ultimate answer” to be 42, the characters are chided by the great computer Deep Thought,  who says “you need to ask the right question.” Midler demonstrates how optimistic American importers come pouring into China with dollar signs in their eyes without even a hint of where to start with the question, and absurdity ensues.

Why The West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris

Let me start by saying that, if you’re looking to recover from post-university burnout too, don’t start here. This book is a very ambitious project that combines anthropology, history, economics, geography and more, in order to look at the entire history of humanity in broad strokes. The goal of this all is to uncover patterns that can be used to project truths about the future. If it sounds daunting, it is, but it actually reads more like a novel than a textbook, and I found it really interesting and digestible. By the end of this momentous reading task, 622 big-word-small-print-filled pages later, I knew that I was nearly recovered.

Morris starts by describing the two main lines of thought for why the West rules. The first, “long-term lock-in theory,” essentially says that the West has always ruled because of some kind of inherent racial or genetic superiority, and thus will always rule. The second, “short-term accident theory,” posits that Western dominance is basically a fluke, and another accident at any time could change the tide.  He spends the rest of this book arguing both theories are misguided, and follows human history from pre-history to the present in order to illustrate his own perspective. Finally he puts forward some interesting and frankly unexpected projections about the future, but I won’t give any more spoilers lest the humanities and social science buffs come after me with pitchforks.

5. Train Man by Nakano Hitori

This book is very different from the rest on this list, but after the previous epic I needed to detox a bit. I actually managed to finish this one over just two days, not more than four or five hours in total. Train Man tells the true story of a super geek from the video games/manga porn/electronics-infested depths of Akihabara, Tokyo, whose “age = years without a girlfriend.” The book itself is essentially a transcript of the chat forum where “Train” describes how he saved a girl from a belligerent drunk on a train, and subsequently seeks the advice of his fellow super geeks as he tries to get together with her, updating them constantly about his progress.

I thought Train Man was a really cute story, and knowing that it all happened in real time made my nerdy side glow with pride. Just as all the forlorn girlfriend-less geeks rallied behind Train, cheering him on and delighting in his successes as a distraction from their own failures, simply reading the chat log you can’t help but feel like a small part of the action. Train transforms from a super geek to a hero of all geeks, and in a way he kind of betrays them all for doing so, but he also shows them they’re not all as hopeless as they thought. Nerds of the world, unite!

Five books down, now let’s see… what should I add to the stack next?

Well, that’s five, so I guess I don’t have to fear the printed medium any longer. I don’t have any books lined up to read next, so if my list reminds you of a book you think I’d enjoy, please do share! And to all the recent university graduates out there, I wish you all the best in your recovery!