Choose Your Books Carefully

by | Mar 17, 2014

Books can make us do odd things.

There’s a passage in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, I think, where the god Odin is in a nursing home. His thunder and lightning days are done, he’s old and tired. Odin doesn’t want to do anything but sleep, and his only passion is the crisp, cool, perfect white sheets on his hospital bed.

Once a day Odin gets out of bed for a short walk and ablution, then snuggles back down into his fresh linen.

Every time I read that book, I change my own sheets soon afterward. In fact, ever since I first read the passage, I spend a few minutes each night and each morning in bed, thinking about how blessed and grateful I am to be indoors, clean, dry, and comfortable between linen sheets. It is a powerful paragraph. Douglas Adams was an artist.

I was affected by 1984. It’s not a fun book to read – it’s thoroughly depressing. You can see parallels of 1984 in our modern world, and it’s frightening. Yet I think that Orwell took too grim of an interpretation of the world, because it’s not as bad as all that. Still, when I was reading it, I was as low as I’ve ever been. Checking out seemed like a reasonable idea. It wasn’t until I cleansed my palate afterwards, with a round of Terry Pratchett, that I realized how deeply the book had affected me, and swore to never touch it again.

This is a passage from The Toyota Way. I’ve bookmarked and copied down this snippet so that I’ll never lose it, because I love it so much.

(Link to the complete chapter)

“Since so much of the success of Lexus depended on achieving these breakthrough performance objectives for the engine, and since this depended so heavily on production engineering, Suzuki presented a number of strict requirements to the engine production engineers, whose response was largely discouraging. Their first reaction was that you cannot make parts that are more precise than the tolerances of the precision instruments you’re using to make them. At the time, Toyota had the most precise instruments in the world for machining engine parts (e.g., high-precision machine tools for machining castings into crankshafts, pistons, etc.). And so Suzuki said, “Oh, OK, I see your point.” But backing away from these breakthrough performance objects would mean the end of his “dream car.” So he turned to his superiors for help and was able to get them formed into a Flagship Quality Committee (The “FQ Committee”).”

This is a chapter in the breathtaking story of Ichiro Suzuki, who, given the “most precise instruments in the world”, insisted that even more precise instruments be manufactured for the first production Lexus.

“At the time, Toyota had the most precise instruments in the world”. That line resonated with me. Such assurance, such lack of pretense, no debate. Just “Toyota has the best machinery in the world.” I would say those words to myself last year when I washed cars, and then I would wash faster, dry more thoroughly, replace the cars more perfectly aligned in their parking spots, and run faster to the next car.

In November I parked in front of the Bruce Hutchinson Library and checked my messages. “Have you ever read a book called ‘The Perfect Vehicle‘?” asked Corey Bergerud, apropos of nothing. (I’ve written about the Bergerud boys before. I’m not close to any of them, but there are dozens on the Island and I haven’t yet met one I didn’t love. A blog post for another day.)

“No,” I texted back. “Good thing I’m at the library.”

Bruce Hutchinson didn’t have it in stock, but the librarian looked it up and directed me to the Central branch, where I checked it out. Over Christmas I read about a woman who, realizing that she loved her boyfriend’s bike more than the boyfriend, dumped him and bought a Moto Guzzi. She rode to rallies in the States, went to track days, took long camping trips with her biker bros and toured Germany, hosted on short notice by the European Moto Guzzi rider’s club.

I can’t afford an Italian bike, but it’s no coincidence that there was a new Kawasaki in my driveway in January.


No one ever does anything new. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and walk in the footsteps of the masters who have gone ahead of us. To read about their struggles is to be inspired, and to forgive yourself for you own shortcomings.

A good way to be inspired to write is to read the biography of Ray Bradbury. He would sit and write 2000 words per day, then take some beautiful woman out to a carnival in the evening. Upon sight of the fun house mirrors, he’d abandon his date and run back to his typewriter to write a story about an oddly shaped man who went to the funhouse to feel normal.

If you need to practice music, try the biography of Stewart Copeland. He threw his drumsticks down after the final Police gig and spent the next 20 years having children, pursuing a polo vendetta against the Crown Prince of England, and writing dubious musicals.

When he picked the sticks up again for the Police reunion tour, he was so rusty and out of shape that Sting would insultingly keep time on his hi-hat. Weeks of steady practice brought him back into fighting condition.

And if you, for some reason, need to build a railroad, there’s always Atlas Shrugged. I’m 1/4 through it – once I finish it I’ll let you know what else you can be inspired to do while being outraged at socialists (because being outraged at socialists goes without saying when you read Ayn Rand).

Pick your books carefully. They’ll change your mind, and your mind will change the world.