Book Reviews

This page is for me, mostly. I read a lot but needed a place to track my progress, so here it is. You are more than welcome to stop by to see what I am reading these days. If you have any book recommendations, send them my way.  Maybe I will add them to my list.

Alphabetical Listing

Just click on the name of the book to jump to the review below.

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Robert Harris

A few hours ago, I finished the book Imperium by Robert Harris.

I started listening on Scribd, but then Scribd took it away.  Oh well.  Scribd giveth.  Scribd taketh away.

I finished the book on Audible.

I give the book five stars.

But, I have to warn you.  I know that much of my audience is young.  There are a lot of teenagers hanging out on this blog.  Fine with me.  But, I don’t want you to run off an read a book that your parents would not approve of.  When they confront you, I know what you will say.  “Mom!  Mr. Thomas told me to read it!”  Then your moms will email me.  Yeah.  Don’t do that to me.

So. Should you read the book?  Maybe.

Just so you know, it does include swearing.  Curse words.  Not many.  In fact, I was surprised how few there were.  But, yes.  There were a few.

There are no sexual scenes.  I was surprised here, too.  Pleasantly surprised, but still surprised.  There were a few allusions, but that was it.

Mostly, the book was packed with well researched, well written, exciting history.  Honestly, I loved it.

I started reading the series because every year, I teach Third Year Latin by Robert Henle.  Third Year Latin is a compilation of the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Cicero was quite possibly the greatest orator of ancient Rome and he is the main character in the book Imperium.

I find that almost nothing is as powerful as historical fiction if you want to really learn about someone from the past.  Maybe it’s just me, but the information just sticks when I read historical fiction.

For example, I have read Third Year Latin many times.  This is a textbook treatment of Cicero.  Yawn.

Today, after finishing Imperium, I feel like I am really, at last, starting to get to know Cicero.

Imperium is the first book in a trilogy.  Next comes Conspirata, and finally Dictator.  I can’t wait to start reading Conspirata.  I have a sixteen or seventeen-hour car ride next Saturday as I am headed to Manitou Springs, Colorado for a week.  I will be listening to Conspirata on the way out to Colorado, and hopefully Dictator on the way home.  By the way, these books are long.  On Audible, Imperium is about 12 hours of listening.

Imperium follows the rise of Cicero from “new man” to Consul of Rome.  It is his slave, Tyro, who narrates the tale.  This is a brilliant way to tell the story.  We end up getting an up close, very personal, over the shoulder view of the life of the great orator.   Now that I have finished the book, I feel I have not understood the man in the past.  I felt as though I were looking at him through a distant, clouded window.  While reading Imperium I felt as though I were in the room with him.

If you are in Third Year Latin by Robert Henle, I definitely recommend the book.  However, please show this review to your parents first.  I would give the book a PG-13 rating.

I have done the same thing to deepen my understanding of Julius Caesar.  I felt I needed to know more about the man because each year I teach Second Year Latin by Robert Henle.  Second Year Latin is essentially a reading of Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

To deepen my understanding of Caesar, I started reading the “master of Rome” series by Colleen McCullough.  But, wow.  I simply cannot recommend these books without serious reservations.  They are often vulgar, vile, and disgusting.  I would give them an R rating and at times an X rating.

It’s truly disappointing because Mrs. McCullough’s research and scholarship are impressive.  That woman really knew quite a bit about ancient Rome.  You could learn so much from her.  However, she added so much filth, I wonder if it’s worth it.

I am still looking for a historical novel dealing with Julius Caesar that I can, in good faith, recommend to my students.  If you know of anything, please let me know.

As for Cicero… I have found what I will be recommending for quite some time.  I will be recommending Imperium by Robert Harris.

The Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon

by Douglas Wilson

Years ago, I think it was in Surprised by Joy, I read about the English education of C.S. Lewis.   Unfortunately, Evernote didn’t exist at the time.  As a result, I can’t source what I am about to assert.

Anyway, at some point, and somewhere, I read about the English education of C.S. Lewis.

Here is the short version.  In order to master our language downriver, C.S. Lewis studied the headwaters of our language.

As a total aside, the headwaters of the mighty Mississipi river are located in Itasca, Minnesota.  Itasca sounds like a Native American word, doesn’t it?

It isn’t.  Instead, it is the combination of the Latin word for truth, or true (veritas) and head (caput).  Look what happens when you run them together…. verITASCAput.  Do you see it?  Itasca.  The “true head” of the Mississippi.

What were we talking about?

Oh, yeah.   C.S. Lewis.

As it turns out, years ago, students who wanted to really master English would study the headwaters of our language.

As you know, English is a disaster.  It’s a train wreck.  Don’t believe me?  Pronounce the word one.  Mmmhm.  Where is the “w”?  Pronounce the word two.  There’s the “w”!  But, now it has chosen to give us the silent treatment.    I blame the French.

English is a combination of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Greek.   Those are just the big guys.  We have robbed many other languages as well.  Canoe, for example, came from the same people who should have given us the word Itasca.  Canoe is a Native American word.

I have long wanted to learn the source languages of English.  Part of a long term plan of mine.  Every decade I intend to master a new language.  In the end, I intend to write a humorous history of the English language.  In the year 2065.  If man is still alive.

Let’s see if I can get to the point.

Last week, I decided it was time to start Anglo-Saxon.

Gathering dust on my shelf for a long time was a copy of the Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon by Douglas Wilson.

I couldn’t wait any longer.   I read the book last week.

Here is where I brag on Latin.

Latin, once again, blazed the trail for me.

If you don’t know this, English used to be an inflected language.  I’m looking at you Anglo-Saxon.  Because Latin had already taught me almost everything I needed to know about the nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative cases, Anglo-Saxon couldn’t scare me.  It tried to.  But, it didn’t.  Sorry, Anglo-Saxon.  (When they were younger, my kids tried to scare me by growling at me.  They were too cute to scare me.  Same concept here.)

It took me about three days to learn the grammar of Anglo-Saxon.   Again.  The praise goes to Latin.  Latin blazed the trail.

It took about a day to get used the alphabet of Anglo-Saxon.  It is mostly the same as ours, which makes sense, of course.

Pronunciation has proven problematic.  I am imitating this every day:

Simple.  Listen and imitate.

All that is left now is vocabulary.  Or, as Mr. Wilson calls it, the word-hoard.  I am pretty sure the Anglo-Saxons would approve.  Currently, I have a pretty small word-hoard.

I like the way the author wrote the book.   The first half covers grammar and much of the Anglo-Saxon word-hoard.

The second half of the book provides readings from the New Testament and from the Saga of Beowulf.

Mr. Wilson admits from the beginning that this is an introduction to Anglo-Saxon.  Fair enough.  He shows you where to go if you want to learn more.  But, remember… this is an introduction.

I really only have one complaint about the book.  The vocabulary in the back is not comprehensive enough to include all of the vocabulary that shows up in the New Testament readings.   But, then again, people have the same complaint about Visual Latin.  So, technically, I can’t complain.  Like Joe Walsh, I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.

Okay.   Now I have managed to squeeze two classic rock references into a review of an Anglo-Saxon grammar.  Feeling pretty good.

By the way, there was a quote in the introduction that I intend to throw at academic purists, pursed-lipped schoolmarms, and YouTube pronunciation trolls.

Here it is:

“In studying any new language – or, as with Anglo-Saxon, an old language that feels strangely familiar – pronouncing things out loud is where we tend to be most self-conscious.  This is largely the grammarians’ fault.  Grammarians tend to be fussers, and fussers tend to scare ordinary people away from language studies.  If you pronounce Beowulf’s tribe the way it looks and say Geet, and the rest of the class laughs, and you discover later to your mortification that you ought to have said Ye-aht, the temptation will be to chuck it all in and take up engineering.  But we should keep in mind that languages turn into various dialects and other languages precisely because ordinary people won’t pronounce things the way they are supposed to.  With regard to Anglo-Saxon, Stephen Pollington rightly points out the “welter of regional and chronological details” that “are really only worth bothering with for the serious student.”  

So perhaps we should lighten up a bit.”

I couldn’t agree more.  The same logic applies to Latin.  But, then again, Latin pronunciation purists don’t seem to apply the rules of logic.

By the way, I watched a great movie with my kids last night.  The Queen of Katwe.  If you are a normal human being, check it out.  It is worth your time.

If you are a pronunciation Nazi, you probably shouldn’t watch it.  They pronounce English with African accents.   Probably because they are from Africa.  I know you Latin pronunciation purists can’t handle that kind of stuff.

I really enjoyed The Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon.  If you have ever wanted to read our mother tongue in the words of our ancestors, this is a great place to start.

I give this book five stars.

First Year Latin

by Robert Henle

Some time ago, my students and I finished reading First Year Latin by Robert Henle.

I read this book every year.

First things first.  Praise where praise is due.

First Year Latin by Robert Henle will take you to a New Testament reading level.  Sort of.  More on this in a bit.

Every time I start learning a language, I have one primary goal.  Within six months, or so, I want to be able to read the New Testament in the language.

Why do I try to read the New Testament in the language I am studying?  There is a reason.

Since this post is about First Year Latin by Robert Henle, let’s focus on Latin.

To read the New Testament in Latin, you need a vocabulary of about 1,000 words.

Since the New Testament is written at an elementary, perhaps middle-school level, these 1,000 words will become the foundational vocabulary on which you will build the rest of your knowledge.

The Bible is a perfect first Latin reader for many reasons.

First, it is repetitive.  Truly, truly, I say unto you, the same words are used again and again.

Second, the background doesn’t really change.  Everything happens in Judea,  Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth.  With the steady geography comes some steady, and basic vocabulary.  You learn the words for hill, road, village, lake, sea, city, wall, house and so on.

Third, the characters rarely change.  Mary, Joseph, Jesus, John, Herod, the apostles, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  Sprinkle in a few Romans from time to time and you are good to go.

What does all of this mean?

It means that you will be encountering the same words again and again.  And again.  Repetition is the perfect way to absorb new vocabulary.

Fourth, the New Testament is filled with subjunctive sentences.

Try learning the subjunctive while reading a few examples from a textbook.  That’s like trying to learn about married life from a book.  Have fun with that.

On the other hand, the New Testament is filled with the subjunctive mood.  It’s all over the place, and… it’s in context.   Learning the subjunctive in the context of a story is a bit like learning about married life while being married.  It just makes sense.  I mean, it’s still confusing and all, but if you are going to learn about it, this is the way to do it.

Back to First Year Latin by Robert Henle.  This book will take you to the New Testament.  That it is the goal (one of them) and that is a good goal.  Any book that gets you reading the New Testament in another language is worthy of your time.  So, kudos to Mr. Henle.

That said, I am now going to leave the reservation.

I have taken thousands of students through this book.   I have spent thousands of hours grading the work of students plodding their way through this book.   And, I have received hundreds of emails from what I call “Henle refugees”.

I have received hundreds of emails from tearful mothers who don’t know what to do because Henle Latin shattered their love of Latin and because Henle Latin shattered their children’s interest in Latin.

I have also received five or six emails from parents reprimanding me because I am too hard on Henle Latin.  Here is one:

When it comes to First Year Latin, the fans have their thousands and the haters have their tens of thousands.

Actually, the fans seem to have their dozens.   Maybe.

Soooo… why?  Why the hate? 

I believe it is, in part, because Latin is hard.  In fact, I recommend students start with Latin Lite before they attempt Latin.  What do I mean by Latin Lite?  I mean Spanish, French, Italian, or any of the other Romance languages.  Start with one of those languages and then study Latin.   After learning Spanish, you will find Latin so much easier.  Best of all, if you never make it to Latin… you will still speak Spanish. 

Latin is hard.  This has nothing to do with Mr. Henle.  Not his fault.

Henle Latin takes a grammatical approach to the language.  Again, not Mr. Henle’s fault.  The book was written in the mid-1900’s.  Every Latin book took the grammatical approach back then.  Well, every Latin book in America.  This is the academic approach.  The problem is, the approach doesn’t really work.

Don’t believe me?  How many Americans take a foreign language in high school?

I will give you a clue. 


How many bilingual Americans do you know?

Crickets.  Crickets.  Crickets. 

Mmmm-hmmm.  I rest my case. 

First Year Latin by Robert Henle takes the academic and grammatical approach to Latin.   I am not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings… but, don’t be surprised when you finish the book and you can barely read in Latin.

There is another reason the book is not as effective as we would all like it to be.  First Year Latin teaches students about 500 Latin words.   This falls way, way, way too short. 

You need about 1,000 words to read the New Testament in Latin.   You need about 3,000 words to be able to speak fluently in a language.  It’s a simple math problem.   First Year Latin just does not provide enough ammo for the fight.

In contrast, my favorite Latin book, Lingua Latina by Hans Ørberg, equips students with about 2,000 Latin words.  By chapter 28, students are reading straight from the gospel of Matthew.   With ease.

By the way, Henle students are often annoyed to find they can’t read Lingua Latina fluently after completing First Year Latin.  Again, it’s just a numbers game.  When you show up to Lingua Latina, you are about 1,500 words short. 

Again, credit where credit is due.  Henle Latin does teach the grammar of Latin.  In fact, it teaches the same grammar that Lingua Latina teaches.  This is good.  This simply means you need to catch up in vocabulary. 

As far as I can tell, First Year Latin has two major goals.

The secondary goal is to get students to a reading level in the New Testament.   Empowered with a vocabulary of 500 words, students are left a bit short.  They do have the grammar.  They just lack the vocabulary.

The primary goal of the book is to give students the ability to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

This, by the way, is the reason there are so many morbid words in the book.  Students never learn the word for sister.  But, by the end of First Year Latin, they do know how to say kill, attack, assault, capture, conquer, danger, do harm to, enemy, hostage, hurl, repulse, slaughter, sorrow, sword, and wretched.

They also know how to translate the sentence: “There were dead bodies floating in the river.”

I wish I were making this up. 

Here is the saddest part.  I teach Second Year Latin as well.  After completing First Year Latin students still are not ready to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars.   Again.  Numbers game.  You just need more vocabulary. 

Here’s the thing.  If you have to read First Year Latin, I can help you.  I take students through the book every year.  In the spirit of ripping the Band-Aid off quickly, we read the entire text of First Year Latin in… well… the first year. 

If you have to read the book, I can help. 

But, if there is any way you can avoid the book, I recommend a completely different approach.

Combine Visual Latin with Lingua Latina.  The moment you finish these two, read one of the gospels in Latin.  You will be able to. 

It’s still Latin.  It’s still going to be difficult. 

But, I get the emails.   Every single day, I get the emails.   I’ve seen the damage.   I’m telling you, Henle Latin could destroy your interest in Latin.  Lingua Latina could ignite it. 

If you can, skip First Year Latin by Robert Henle.

If you can’t skip, I can help you.

Join one of my Henle classes.

Lingua Latina

by Hans Ørberg

A few months ago, my students and I just finished another trip through Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, by Hans Orberg. 

Since I had to cancel class in April, we were a bit off schedule.  I promised students we would continue until we finished the book.

Every time I read this book, I am amazed. 

I am amazed at how well it teaches Latin.  And, I am amazed at how tough it is.

Did you catch that?  Let me repeat that.  

Lingua Latina is tough.

Hans Orberg wrote Lingua Latina in Latin.

That’s right.  If you have not seen the book yet, it is completely in Latin.

There is no English explanation.  There are no sidebars with English notes.  There are no grammar points in English at the end of each chapter.  Most shocking to my students, there is no “Latin to English” dictionary at the back.

Lingua Latina: Per Se Illustrata means: The Latin Language Illustrated through itself.

In other words, Latin will teach you Latin.  The reader will use the Latin he knows to learn the Latin he does not know.  

Chapter 1 begins with pictures of new words and a map of the Roman empire.  Students read Roma in Italia est. 

Looking at the map, students see that Rome is in Italy.  This simple sentence just taught four words in Latin.  Each sentence, each paragraph, and each chapter from this point forward will add to your knowledge.  

By the time you finish the book, you will know almost 2,000 words in Latin.  This is significant.  I’ve been studying languages for twenty years.  As best I can tell, a learner with about 2,000 to 3,000 words in another language possesses the foundation needed for basic conversation and possesses the foundation for more advanced reading.

By contrast, another text I use to teach Latin, First Year Latin by Robert Henle, teaches students about 400 words.  Really, that isn’t much.  When you finish the book, you are not going to be able to read much in Latin.

By chapter 28, in Lingua Latina, students are reading from the New Testament in Latin!  In other words, if you tackled a chapter a day, starting today, you could be reading the New Testament, in Latin, 28 days from now.  Admittedly, that would be one tough assignment to hand yourself, but… theoretically, it could be done.

At the end of the book, chapter 35, students read Latin poetry, Latin wit, and a few Latin jokes.  If you can understand jokes in another language, you are either fluent or almost fluent.

I think I have read almost every Latin textbook out there.  I spent years looking for something like Lingua Latina.  The day I found it, I was hooked.

Mr. Ørberg was brilliant.

He turned a tough subject, one almost always taught from a grammar-based approach into a novel.

Instead of reading dry disjointed sentences, students read about family squabbles, school fights, pirates, dramatic rescues, runaway slaves, and stolen money.

Not only is the story completely in Latin, it is actually interesting!

Lingua Latina takes the reader from completely ignorant in Latin to near fluency.  Keep that in mind.  When I tell you that this is one of the toughest books you will ever read in your life, I am not kidding.

If you are plowing through Lingua Latina and you are struggling, be encouraged.  You are supposed to struggle.  Push through.

Soon you will be able to read in Latin.

That, my friends, is worth the struggle.

Of course, if you don’t want to tackle this book on your own, you are welcome to join me as I read it again.  We start over in September.


by David Wolfe

While we were in Colorado, a friend sent us a copy of the book Superfoods, by David Wolfe.

One of the main themes that kept coming up while we were out in Colorado was the theme of food and health.

Quite a few doctors, medical professionals, and therapists told us that if my son was to fully recover, he was going to need to eat properly.

Our diet before we went to Colorado was actually pretty good. But like everyone’s diet, it was far from perfect.

While in Colorado, I decided to run an experiment on myself.  If my son was going to have to change his diet to help his brain recover, I decided I might as well change my diet as well.

For years I have been trying to eliminate sugar from my diet.  It’s been one long string of failures.  But this time, it seemed different.

For my son to recover fully, he really must avoid sugar and junk food for quite some time.   My wife and I decided it would likely be easier on him if he weren’t alone.

So, we have attempted again to eliminate sugar.

While in Colorado I started reading Superfoods, by David Wolfe.  I just finished it a few days ago.

I’m always a little skeptical of books like this one.  It seems that quite often the health food crowd oversells their products.  I’ve seen some rather ridiculous claims associated with herbal supplements, teas and cleanses.

Maybe they work, maybe they don’t.  I remain skeptical.

But  Superfoods was intriguing.  After all, David Wolf wasn’t really trying to sell his products to me.  He seems intent on educating the reader.  He simply tells the reader that there are certain foods out there so rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants they ought to be known as superfoods.

The book opens with a fascinating statement.

“A new day is dawning on the world of nutrition. Our nutrition potential has finally caught up to our technology. Shipping, communication, and increased knowledge about nutrition are allowing us to access incredible quality food products from around the planet in a way that had heretofore been impossible or simply unknown.”

He’s right, you know.

Many of the foods he recommends in super foods were unavailable to my parents when I was a kid.  I doubt my parents even knew about them.  They didn’t possess the knowledge of these foods, let alone the ability to order them.

Today, however, we have the information and the food at our fingertips.

The first superfood the author mentions is Cacao.    I decided to try this one first.  I read about it in the book, went online, landed on, and ordered this:

I chose “yesterday shipping” turned around and noticed a bag of Cacao on the kitchen table.

We really do live in amazing times.

The structure of the book is pretty simple.  Mr. Wolf takes each superfood, gives us its Latin name, a bit of its history, and then he describes the benefits of the food.  He ends each chapter with recipes.

I really like that Mr. Wolf added short histories to each of the superfoods.   For example, in the chapter on honey, Mr. Wolf points out that honey doesn’t expire.  Archaeologists have discovered edible honey in ancient Egyptian tombs.  This stunned me.  I had no idea.

I also didn’t know that honey was a superfood.  But that’s just an example of information that we have lost in our modern age.  The ancient Egyptians knew.   The Greeks knew.  The Romans knew. In fact, according to Mr. Wolf, honey was so prized among the Greeks they even transported Alexander the great’s body back to Greece in a coffin filled with honey.

I’ve decided that’s how I want to go.  I have added a clause to my will.

In the chapter on hemp, we discover a bit of a disappointing history.  Evidently, hemp was once one of the main products of the United States.

Not only are the hemp seeds a superfood, but the sturdy plant provided the material for rope, clothing, and numerous other products.

The plant is hardy and does not require pesticides.  Cotton, on the other hand, requires inordinate amounts of pesticides.

Fortunately for all of us, the U.S. government got involved.  According to the author,

“In 1937, Popular Science magazine called hemp ‘the new billion-dollar crop.’  A machine that simplified the hemp paper making process had just been invented.  But the promise of hemp was never fulfilled.

In the early 1930’s one of the great media conspiracies of the 20th Century unfolded.  Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, along with the DuPont Corporation, a group of petroleum interests, the American cotton growing lobby, international bankers, and a group of ignorant politicians (are there any other kind?), lead a crusade to ban hemp.”  (Italics are mine.)

As the story unfolds, we learn that petroleum and petroleum based products eventually replace the cheaply manufactured and versatile hemp.  As always, thank you all knowing, all powerful government.  We bow our heads in humble gratitude.

As I said, I’m running an experiment on myself.  I’ve gone vegan.

I intended to do this only for three months.  I just want to see what will happen.  Will I get sick?  Will I get healthier?  I don’t know. It remains to be seen.

I suspect the results are going to delight me.  Already, I’ve lost quite a few extra pounds.  And I seem to be gaining energy and mental clarity.

I suspect in the long run things are going to go very, very well.

After all, things went well for Jim Morris.  He died last year at 80 years old.  This is what it looks like when he died.

Yeah.  I think I would like to look like that at 80.

Things have also gone well for Dr. Ellsworth Wareham.  As far as I know, he is still alive.  He was born in 1914.  In the following video, he was interviewed when he was 98 years old.  He had just retired.  He was a surgeon.

Things seem to be going well for vegan endurance athlete Rich Roll:

I’ve been ordering many of the foods David Wolf recommends in the book.   I have pretty much been tossing the foods into a smoothie every morning before I start the day.

I loosely started in Colorado, but I have been hitting it hard for the last little bit.  I am trying to go 90 days without sugar, without skipping a workout, without meat, and without dairy.

We will see how it goes.

So far, the toughest part has been the schedule change.  I have to get up every morning at four to begin milking the almonds.

So, yeah.  I recommend Superfoods by David Wolfe.  I think you might enjoy it.  I certainly did.

Plus, it just might change your life.

Finding Ultra

by Rich Roll

Several days ago (June 19, 2017) I finished reading Finding Ultra, by Rich Roll.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for several years.  Just never could find the time.

Then, when my son, Jackson, wrecked in Colorado, I suddenly found myself with the time.

I had moved my family to Athens, Greece while I studied Greek.  Jackson’s accident brought us back to America.  We ended up in Aurora, Colorado for nearly two months.

While there, I stopped studying Greek as my wife and I struggled to take care of our son, and help our daughters adjust to the transition.  I also struggled to keep my site alive, my classes on, and my blog active.  And, my wife and I just struggled.  Tough times.

To keep our sanity, I bought a family membership to the Central Park Recreation Center.  While my girls played in the lazy river/pool, I would work out.  While working out, I finally found the time to listen to Finding Ultra.

I really enjoyed the book.  I’ve been a fan of Rich Roll for some time now.  I used to listen to his podcast but eventually had to quit.  I had to quit because there was work to be done.  He and Tim Ferriss tend to host some seriously long shows.  I usually only have time for a 15- minute to 30-minute podcast.   Both of these guys can talk with their guests for hours.  Good stuff.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

Rich Roll started competing after the age of 40.  I found this inspiring.  This was one of the reasons I wanted to read his book.

But, what I found fascinating was the fact that he is plant-powered.  Rich Roll is a vegan.

How is it possible to compete (and win) in triathlons as a post 40-year-old vegan?   This question nagged me for years.  Finally, I read the book.

I am glad I did.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed at first.  I came looking for answers.  How did Rich Roll do what he did?  How did he win those races as a vegan?

For the most part, the book was simply an autobiographical sketch detailing Mr. Roll’s decent into addiction and then his climb out of addiction.  Interesting.  Inspiring.  But, not what I came for.

There was a brief mention of his plant-based diet somewhere in the middle of the book.  I found this part extremely helpful, but I also found it to be too short.  I wanted to hear more.  The story moved on.  As I said, I was disappointed.  But, I pressed on.  Perhaps he would come back to the subject.

He did.

At the end of the book, I found what I was looking for.  In Appendix A, Rich Roll goes into detail.  He tells us what he eats, when he eats, how much he eats, and so on.  The appendix was worth the price of the book.

He even tackles the persistent protein question.  The meat and dairy industry has convinced all of us that we absolutely must eat the dead carcass of an animal killed four weeks ago, or we will never survive.  I have long suspected this argument to be ridiculous.  I really appreciated that Mr. Roll tackled this argument.

Incidentally… have you ever noticed that the largest, strongest animals on our planet are plant based?

  • The bull
  • The bison
  • The horse
  • The giraffe
  • The moose
  • The elephant
  • The hippopotamus.

Even the largest dinosaurs were herbivores.

Have you also noticed that the people telling us that we have to eat meat make lots of money selling meat?

I listened to this book on Audible.  I do this a lot.  You can cram audiobooks into the strangest places, and in doing so, you can read so much more than you might otherwise read.  However, I have to say… Rich Roll, who reads the book himself, is a laid back guy.  You get the feeling he is not in a big rush.  I often am in a rush.  For this reason, I read the book at 1.5 speed.  At 1.5 speed, Mr. Roll sounded normal.  But, that’s just me.  🙂

I really enjoyed this book.  At times it felt a bit like a sales-pitch.  There was a bit of product placement.  Overall, though, I say it’s worth it.  I found it useful, helpful, and inspiring.

I give it four stars.

The Obstacle is the Way

by Ryan Holiday

Last Saturday, my family and I left Denver, Colorado and drove home to Tennessee.

For those who do not know, on April 13, my son was in a terrible car accident just outside of Denver.  My wife, my girls and I were in Athens, Greece at the time.  I was there to study Greek intensively.  When we received the news, we canceled our lives in Greece and flew to Denver.  We lived in Denver for almost two months while my son recovered.  He is doing very well, by the way.

After my son spent a few months in the hospital and in physical therapy, we decided it was time to head home.

We were not sure how much Jackson would be able to endure cramped in the van, so we took it slow.  Our drive from Denver to Nashville took four days.

During the trip, we listened to the fourth Harry Potter book.  We really enjoy the Harry Potter series.  In fact, I taught a few classes on the series some time ago.  Those lectures are still available to subscribers.

There were long stretches of quiet on the road, too.  During those quiet stretches, I listened to a book by Ryan Holiday.  The book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a modern overview of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.

If you are not sure what Stoicism is, there is a brief overview here:  According to tradition, the stoic philosophy was founded in Athens by the philosopher Zeno.  It was popular among the Greeks and Romans, fell from grace as Christianity spread, and enjoyed a resurgence during the Renaissance.

Stoicism is the belief that virtue is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with the divine laws that governs nature.  Stoics strive to show indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune, pleasure, and pain.

Stoics strive to endure pain or hardship without displaying their feelings and without complaint.

I read the book because stoicism appeals to me immensely.

Three main names pop up frequently in any discussion of stoicism.   Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.

Though Mr. Holiday respects them all, he really likes Marcus Aurelius.  This is evident throughout the book.  This is a red flag for me.  I will explain in a bit.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  My family and I have been through much lately.  Life has been quite difficult.  I handled the difficulties in the exact opposite manner of the Stoics.  In other words, I lost my cool.  More than once.

For this reason, I read this book on the way home.  I felt I needed a Stoic refresher.   After all, the Stoics are the guys who tried to remain cool while everything around them fell apart.  This is what I strive to be.  I want to be cool under pressure.  Sang-froid.

In Denver, I failed.

So, on the way home from Denver, I read The Obstacle is the Way.  I needed a reminder.  I needed a re-set.

There is much to learn from this book.  Mr. Holiday delivers countless examples of those who remained cool under pressure.   Those stories justify the price of the book, in my opinion.  But, it is also my opinion that we learn best when we learn from stories.

There is a reason Jesus teaches in parables.  Stories drive the point home.

I liked the stories from the book best.  But, there is also a lot of what I would call moralistic pontificating in this book.  I found that tedious.   As I was listening to this book during a long drive, it really did not bother me that much.  I just had to focus to ensure that my mind did not wander.

In Mr. Holiday’s defense, I felt he was only imitating his heroes.  There exists much moralistic pontificating among the writings of the Stoics as well.

Back to my concerns with Marcus Aurelius.

Those who adopt the Stoic philosophy love this guy.  This is where I hesitate.

You may remember Marcus Aurelius from the movie Gladiator.  He was the old emperor killed early on in the movie by his son Commodus.  The movie itself is rather inaccurate historically, and yet the movie accurately depicts much of Roman culture at the time.

Marcus Aurelius is depicted in the movie, and by modern proponents of Stoicism as a wise, benevolent, kind old man.  Maybe he was on a personal level.

In the movie, he wants to restore the power of the Roman Senate.  In reality,  he did everything he could to strip power from the Roman Senate.

In the movie, he does not want his idiot son Commodus to assume power over Rome.  In reality, he groomed his son for power.  He had elevated his son to positions of authority before the boy was six years old.  Commodus did become emperor after his father’s death.  He was an idiotic tyrant.  Among other things, he re-named all of the calendar months in his own honor.  January became the first month of Commodus.   February became the second month of Commodus, and so on.

In the movie, no mention is made of the persecution of Christians during his reign.  Marcus was one of the great Roman persecutors of Christians.  The persecutions started as soon as he came to power in 161 A.D.  He kicked the persecutions into high-gear in 177 A.D.  Justin Martyr wrote directly to Marcus Aurelius.  He defended the Christians in his letters to the emperor.  In response, Marcus Aurelius had Justin Martyr beheaded.

I am torn.  I like what the Stoics are going for.  I like the idea of staying cool under pressure.  I just don’t like some of the Stoic heroes.  Marcus Aurelius is not someone I would imitate.  Among other things, he was clearly a very bad father.

Still, I feel there is much to learn from this book.  I found the stories inspiring.

As I am a teacher, I know students sometimes read my blog and sometimes follow my recommendations.  With that in mind, I recommend this book… half-heartedly.

There is a bit of swearing in the book.  I found this completely unnecessary.  But, this just seems to be the zeitgeist of our times.  Can’t seem to escape it anymore.  It isn’t terrible, so I would give the book a PG-13 rating.

I will often read a book multiple times if I find the book helpful, or inspiring.  I will only read this one once.  It was worth reading once.