Common Threads in my Reading List My recent soul-searching about my blog has coincided with starting to work out some possible thesis topics for my masters, so I've been trying to identify the ideas, people and topics that really interest me, rather than focusing on the ones that only relate to my work and formal education. I've come to see that I'm not particularly interested in educational technology or the education system for their own sakes, although those two areas have accounted for most of my posts in the past year or so.
So what am I interested in? I decided to look back and try to find the commonalities between the most influential books I've read in the past couple of years. If there is one common thread, it is figuring out how people approach their self-actualization. Of course this is too broad, almost as meaningless as saying that I'm interested in sociology or anthropology. More specifically, here’s my reading list, and how I think each book shaped my current fascination with lifestyle choices and values:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities Every amateur urban planner has probably read this one at some point. It totally changed the way I look at cities, particularly inner cities and older neighbourhoods. Self-actualization is reflected in where people choose to live (and why), the opportunities provided by those places, and how their location fits into their chosen lifestyle (work, relationships, leisure, consumer values, creativity).
The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What It All Means about Who We Are This book rocked my world. At first it seems like the grossest generalization to claim that everyone in the continent could be slotted into a set number of predefined lifestyle clusters. Nobody likes to be typecast, and it’s hard to like the idea that someone could predict your political views, the kind of coffee you’re likely to drink, what kind of vehicle you drive, and a host of other lifestyle factors based on your zip code, which has been associated with one of these 67 clusters. But the arguments are convincing, and you start to see the power of the data. It simplifies the bewildering web of people’s choices (location, beliefs, what they buy) into something that rings true, without losing the details that you need to derive real meaning.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community I can’t believe the amount of data in this book showing how people’s values have changed over the last generation. It’s an amazing illustration of how individual choices and values seem to coalesce into a sort of collective consciousness. I wonder how today’s young people will view their roles as part of families, communities, and cities.
Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work This one is most closely related to my work, offering a fascinating glimpse into the aspirations of teenagers over a five-year longitudinal study. It’s a testament to the power of the American Dream, with the vast majority of high school students expecting to earn four-year degrees, get professional careers, and enjoying an upper-middle-class lifestyle. But they have no clue how to go about it, and often have unrealistic expectations of their potential paths.
So, self-actualization is one of the common threads. These books are all popularized social science, mostly based on original research into how people choose and arrange their lifestyles. There’s an important sub-theme centered on work and how people view their work in the context of their lives, balanced with creative pursuits, leisure and relationships. Technology barely makes an appearance, and education (at least the institutional type) is only peripheral, but both could be introduced into a thesis. It's a start, anyway.