I don’t read many improv books. I mean, I have read a few, but when I do, I find my mind wandering. Static verbal descriptions of a dynamic artform are not for me – I’d rather be doing it, or at least talking about it. Ideally both, back and forward. I love a good rehearsal.
However, in nearly every other non-fiction book I read I see parallels and echoes, lessons for improvisers and insights that we can learn from. So, in no particular order, here are ten books that made me think and re-think about how and why I make things up. That doesn’t mean I agree with every idea in every book, just that they all gave me material for reflection. I hope some of them do the same for you.
And just cos I couldn’t quite squeeze it into ten, there are twelve, plus some honourable mentions.
Dancing in the Streets, by Barabara Ehrenreich
When humans get together, whether in a football crowd, a rave or at a carnival, they chant and dance. In other words, they get in rhythm. This simple biotechnology is a preparation for and model of seamless cooperation and it feels (for most people) wonderful. It’s why games like ‘big booty’ and ‘bunny bunny’ work so well.
Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Be the fire and wish for the Wind.”
I have written elsewhere about why I love the idea of antifragility so much. Good systems can go one better than resilient. With an excess of resources, they become antifragile, gaining from disorder, responding and creating something alive, exciting and beautiful. And if that ain’t a great description of an improv show, I don’t know what is. Plus, it’s really funny. And has graphs.
Inside Jokes, by Daniel Dennett, Matthew M. Hurley and Reginald B Adams Jr.
The most satisfying and compelling book about they why we spend so much of our time laughing and finding contexts to do so. Dennett and co describe how laughter is based on the sudden correction of a non-critical error that has crept into our thinking. Plus, they analyse a wonderful selection of dad jokes. The best explanation of humour I have ever read. And I’ve read a few.
Honorable mention – Everything else that Daniel Dennett has ever written. He really is an extraordinary man.
Music, the Arts and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, by Leonard B Meyer
“Anything acquires meaning if it is connected with, or indicates, or refers to, something beyond itself, so that its full nature points to and is revealed in that connection.”
Being a man of limited narrative tastes (police procedural, horror, thriller, horror-thriller), I always saw genre as a necessary evil in the telling of stories. Not necessarily fun, but useful, if only for a good poster. This book introduces the idea of genre as stochastic (ie statistical) and explains how we have reached cultural brownian motion, where everything is moving, but nothing changes. Yummy.
The Ethics of Authenticity, by Charles Taylor
“The danger is not actual despotic control but fragmentation—that is, a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out.”
The phrase ‘Be yourself’ has always troubled me. Appealing through authenticity sounds, we have to knock some of the rougher edges of ourselves in order to function in groups. Just being yourself is not enough. Being yourself always makes it harder to employ humanity’s greates strength – cooperation. It is much more complex than that, both practically and ethically.
The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey
When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.”
I first read this slim little book on the most beautiful train ride I have ever taken, from the Isle of Skye back to Edinburgh. It seemed a fitting journey for the content. Don’t obsess over improvement, just notice, notice and notice. How does the ball come off the racket? How does the initiation influence the scene? Control comes from understanding.
Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
Everything you think you know about the psychology of happiness is wrong. At times dry and academic (reassuringly so), this book lays out the original definition of ‘Flow’ and how just the right level of challenge and focus can lead to a more satisfying and rich life. Read it to understand why I am deathly afraid of the word ‘fun’.
Honorable mention – Creativity, by the same author.
Work won’t love you back, by Sarah Jaffe
“The ideals of freedom and choice that neoliberalism claims to embrace function, paradoxically, as a mechanism for justifying inequality. The choice is yours, but so are the costs for choosing wrong.”
Sat in my flat during lockdown, I got all neo-Marxist. Forced to reflect on the hussle culture and always-on lifestyle of the metropolitan improviser, I came to some uncomfortable conclusions about working yourself to the point of illness. The title of this book and the honorourable mention were both good slaps in the face. I suggest you get slapped.
Honorable mention – Do what you Love, and other Lies about Success and Happiness, by Miya Tokumitsu
Finite and Infitite Games, by James P. Carse
“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing”
Please don’t ask me what this book is really about. A swirling read, dense and ambitious, it plays with the concept of how a game is defined, why and how we play them and why they matter to every aspect of human existence. And it is quite beautiful.
Honorable Mention – Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga. Stylistically the opposite, a Dutch anthropologist gets into the nitty gritty of the play aspect of culture and what it can teach us.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
“All things are for a day, both what remembers and what is remembered.”
Back when philosophy was about everything all at once, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Five Good Emporers. Beloved now by tech bros and yogis alike, this book consists ways of thinking and being which, simply put, make being a person easier.
Honourable Mention – The Courage to be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi
Dumbing us Down, by John Taylor Gatto
“Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.”
Our education system was not designed to make us think, but to make us comply. It creates emotionally and intellectually dependent workers who need constant affirmation and who cannot stray from an approved path. A searing indictment of what bad schooling does from the former New York teacher of the year, this book will make you consider homeschooling.
Honorable mention – The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Freire
The Mind is Flat, by Nick Chater
“Our beliefs, values, emotions and other mental traits are, I suggest, as tangled, self-contradictory and incompletely spelled out as the labyrinths of Gormenghast Castle. It is in this very concrete sense that characters are all fictional, including our own”
We would dearly love to believe that we are special, our minds magical. That the unconscious mind is a wonderland that makes you irreversibly and only you. But the evidence points otherwise. Humans are easy to manipulate, inconsistent and always blagging it by lying to themselves. And that’s OK. That’s who we are.
Honorable mention – Emergence, by Steven Johnson. Smart systems are made of dumb things, like improvisers. Drum drum cymbal.