My very favorite conversation begins with the question, “So, what are you reading these days?” For all the many reasons that this was a terrible, horrible, very bad year, it was a good year for reading. “Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading—that is a good life,” Annie Dillard tells us. By that definition, it was a good year in this house.

But a common theme these days seems to be everyone’s preoccupation with resuming life: picking up the habits, practices and routines of the pre-pandemic world and shaking off the dust of the weeks and months of our recent, forced hibernation. And yet at the same time, many of us are asking ourselves, OK, what practices and habits will I continue as the world opens up and what am I willing to let go of?

How do we travel lightly into an unknown future? That’s the question seeping into every area of our lives. Although I might be able to embrace the theory of a limited 15 Outfits in my wardrobe, there will never be just 15 books on my shelves. I consider myself traveling lightly if I can pack a bag for a holiday with less than 15 books. Often after I give workshops or presentations about the psychology of practicing, I am asked, “Where can I read more about this?” Lucky us, there are dozens—hundreds! ten thousand! —books on habit forming, books on the spiritual discipline of practicing, and books on practice techniques for musicians out there. The only problem is figuring out where to start reading. Here are 15 books that might be a good place to begin (and a few bonus suggestions thrown in for good measure. Ok. More than a few.).

  1. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This is a book aimed at those in the business world but has much to teach all of us—regardless of profession or field—about our habits, good and bad. The concept of “Keystone Habits” (the small, often overlooked and underestimated behaviors that trigger larger patterns) and the Appendix in the back are alone worth the price of this book.
  1. Deep Work (and also Digital Minimalism) by Cal Newport. I discovered these books during the pandemic when I was going blind from all the screen time suddenly thrust upon my teaching schedule. These two books will force you to rethink your technology use and your work routines as well. Warning: they may change your life.
  2. Switch (and Decisive and Made to Stick) are three books by the brothers Chip and Dan Heath. These books again are aimed at the business world and its complicated, rigid infostructures, but there are plenty of take-aways for all of us. The Heath Boys (as I like to call them) are engaging and facile writers, who know how to build an argument from the ground up. We teachers could all learn something about the power of sequencing from their writing style.
  3. Flow (and Creativity) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. These books are now cornerstones in the field of psychology, but there is nothing dated about the ideas here. The basic concept of Flow is that despite our absolute conviction that we’d always rather be lying on the beach, the truth is that we are most happy when we are fully engaged in a task before us, however cognitive or physically strenuous. This is the principle behind the parent who tells me, “I have to fight with Tommy to get him to the piano bench, but once he is there he is perfectly happy.” I’m afraid all of us—regardless of age—act much like Tommy most of the time. Bonus points if you can pronounce the author’s name.
  4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This is a classic text for creativity/productivity folks. It may be almost 20 years old, but nothing better has been written about how to fight one’s inner battles around inertia and lack of motivation.
  1. Better by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a doctor first, writer second, but above all he is a deep thinker about how we might work and live better. His book, Being Mortal, is about living and dying with dignity and attention, but it is the attention he brings to everything he writes that makes Gawande such a compelling and important voice.
  1. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (and also should not be overlooked: Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green). No blurbs necessary here. The titles say it all.
  2. Make It Stick (not to be confused with #3 above) by Peter Brown, et al. This is one of the smartest books on how learning works that I have come across. This is basically my entire master’s degree in Educational Psychology condensed into 253 pages.
  3. The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney. In full disclosure, I should say that I consider Bill not only one of my piano teachers, but also a dear friend. His book has helped to shift the perfectionism standard and the narrow perspective around practicing and performing for countless teachers and musicians. If you are a musician and haven’t read Bill’s book, expect your mind to explode. Some of the best conversations of my life have been over a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) with Bill and his lovely wife, Emilia. May those happen again soon.
  1. A Piano Teacher’s Legacy by Richard Chronister. Clearly, this is a book aimed at my professional colleagues, but there is so much of value in Chronister’s writings for any teacher, I cannot leave it off my list. Above all, he puts the burden of how a student learns on the teacher, a redirection I find both uncomfortable and honest.
  1. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I have probably never recommended a book more often than this one. Anytime anyone says to me, “Amy, I’m feeling stuck . . .” I respond with “Have you done The Artist’s Way?” You don’t read The Artist’s Way, you DO The Artist’s Way. Cameron is sometimes too woo-woo for my taste, but she never stops being spot on and immensely practical. There is no question that discovering The Artist’s Way more than two decades ago changed my thinking forever. As she herself says, “You do not often need to make large changes. Large changes occur in tiny increments. It is useful to think in terms of a space flight: by altering the launch trajectory very slightly, a great difference can be made over time.” Yep, indeed.
  1. Drive by Daniel Pink. My favorite class when I was working on my Educational Psychology degree was on motivational theories. I still believe motivation—why we do—or don’t do— what we do is at the heart of all our practices. This book is a crash course on the subject and will force you to re-examine your own habits with a new lens. One that might make you squirm.
  2. The Courage to Teach (and anything else) by Parker Palmer. Although I’ve never met Parker Palmer, this quiet Quaker educator and writer has been a nudging mentor in my life for over 20 years. For so many teachers, he has been a spiritual force in shaping our values and habits both in and out of the classroom (or the piano lesson). He is one of my biggest heroes.
  3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (see quote above) and…
  4. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Because writing is such a deep and rich and challenging practice, no list would be complete without these two books about the struggles and triumphs and minutiae of those who spend their lives staring at a blank page. You don’t have to be a writer to understand these books, you just have to be a soulful human being, wrestling with the creation of your own life.

With one foot still at home and the other beginning to venture out into the world again, it is an especially sweet and meaningful time to think about our habits and practices of all kinds. The possibilities of what the next chapter of our lives can be are indeed endless. It is both overwhelming and liberating, but after the last shut-down year, so welcomed.

(No doubt, I have missed as many important books as I have named here. What are they? Do tell!)

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