Movies and television shows can take the breath away with their majestic cinematography and leave us abuzz with excitement from life-like special effects. Other than the ridiculously high price of the admission/subscription, there is no cost. Sit down, turn off your brain, and receive an immediate and total assault upon the senses. Like the darkening of a room when the light switch is thrown, so to it is with the brain when the program ends. There is usually not a lot of residual activity in the cerebral cortex once the credits are done rolling. Such is not the case with books. They are unique in their ability to impart information deep into the brain-housing group because they make us work for it. Each word must be digested and processed, interlaced with more words, and then analyzed for context. The brain awakens and thrumming with activity creates a canvas upon which we project what we see the words become. Emotions are stirred, passions are enflamed, and the experience of a thousand lifetimes becomes the readers to keep. Books change us. Therefore, I read. In order to gain knowledge, I read. In order to improve myself, I read. In my never-ending quest to become the man and coach I think I have the potential to be, I read.
Gates of Fire; 80629: A Mengele Experiment; and South: The ENDURANCE Expedition are 3 books from which I’ve gained much. I’d like to share them with you. If nothing else I believe you will learn a bit about “service before self”, the importance of loving one’s fellow man, and our ability to overcome any obstacle set in our path.
Gates of Fire is about the battle of Thermopylae. The name of the battle is far lesser known than what actually happened, that is, 300 Spartans and 4-5000 Greeks held off the Persian army in order buy time for the allied Greek forces to prepare for the invasion. In truth, I do a disservice in saying that the book is about the Battle of Thermopylae. It is far less about the 3 days of fighting and more about the life of Xenoes, a perioikoi (a free, non-citizen inhabitant of Sparta.), and the sole survivor of the battle. The book is written as if he is telling the story – he recounts the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and the lifetime that brought him to his fate.
That is what makes this book worth the read, Xenoes.
Stephan Pressfield does an incredible job bringing to life his fictitious characters. One would never know that these were not real people whose exploits were sourced from an ancient manuscript found at some far off archeological dig. Through their detailed, very human conversations, heart-rending tails of suffering and loss, and zealot-like pursuit of redemption, the reader’s emotions are continually stoked. So life-like are Xenoes, Dekton, Diomache, Dienekes, and Tommy, to name but a few, that one can’t help but feel their suffering, share their hope, and endure their pain.
What I hope you will learn from this book is the importance of becoming part of something bigger and greater than oneself. Xenoes was not a Spartan. A very closed society, it would seem that he had nothing to gain from demonstrating loyalty to Sparta. While that may be true it wasn’t Sparta to which he was loyal but rather its ideals: honor, courage, and commitment. I think that is what is what makes this book so special to me. Through a very harsh, tough, unforgiving story line is a clear message that we as individuals are of very little importance. It is mankind’s ability to embrace the best in others and ourselves, and our willingness to subordinate our best interests for the greater good of the group that truly elevates us as supreme among God’s creatures. While this could have been done effectively by telling the tale through the eyes an obvious hero (King Leonides), Mr. Pressfield’s choice to use the lowest of the low to teach us about our highest ideals makes the book even more enjoyable. It speaks to us “regular Joes” everywhere.
Another book that I highly recommend is 80629: A Mengele Experiment.
Yakoff Skurnik, some would say this book is not for the feint of heart. I say it is a must read for every person that still draws a breath. Mr. Skurnik is a survivor of the Holocaust. He and his family were sent to Auschwitz in 1942 when he was about 18 years old. His family was torn from him, and he spent the next several years suffering unthinkable horrors at the hands of his Nazi captors, to include the maniacal experiments of Joseph Mengele. The book was not a success and is virtually unknown today. That is unfortunate. From balancing on the knife-edge that separated life and death in Auschwitz, to the agonizingly detailed first-hand account of being restrained while his body was ravaged again and again under Mengele’s knife (without the use of anesthesia), to chasing down his former captors, Mr. Skurnik’s harrowing tale needs to be known. His frank delivery and unflinching refusal to back down from the truth make it difficult for some to take in, but that is what makes this book so valuable. I believe the enormity of the evil that Nazi Germany thrust upon the world has been, by some, forgotten. There was a set of twins, 3 years old, that Mengele decided to turn into “Siamese twins”. He cut their backs open, sewed some of their organs together, then stitched them together back-to-back. They lived on for another 3 agonizing days screaming and crying before succumbing to death’s merciful embrace. I challenge all to read about Joseph Mengele’s experiments on the Jews and Gypsies and still support Planned Parenthood’s body part commerce. I challenge all to read this book and then make cavalier comparisons between those with whom you disagree and Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. I challenge all to read this book and not become overtaken by the urge to love your neighbor just a little bit more.
The last book I’d like to leave you with is, South: The ENDURANCE Expedition. This is Sir Earnest Shackleton’s first-hand account of his attempt to be the first man to cross the Antarctic. Though dwindling, there were still corners of the earth yet to be explored. It was November 1914, a different time, for sure. The world was on the precipice of WWI. There were no safe spaces. No one wore safety pins on their shirts to reassure the weak. The worth of a person was still measured by their deeds rather than their intentions. Actions had consequences, both dire and sublime. Honor, courage, commitment, accountability, independence, tangible skills, and audacity made the person. Our thirst for adventure and glory still coursed, hot, in our veins. Sir Earnest Shackleton’s bear was raging, and only a life-threatening challenge would lull it back into slumber. The ad he placed to recruit men for his journey is telling:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”
While he failed to cross the Antarctic, he succeeded in leading his 27 men through one of the all time greatest survival situations in recorded history. His exploits read like fiction. Trapped in an ice flow for 18 months. Lived on chunks of ice in the Antarctic Ocean. Completed two journeys in 16-22’ open-bow lifeboats across the most inhospitable seas known to man while navigating with only a sextant, compass, and the stars. Remained awake for days at a time. Kept all of his men alive and focused on living rather than surrendering to the elements. Crossed the frozen mountain ranges of South Georgia Island by foot in 36 hours with nothing more than 50’of rope and a carpenter’s adze to reach help. To give you a better frame of reference consider this. It was nearly 90 years later that Shackleton’s journey across South Georgia Island was finally replicated. It was done by 3 of the most experienced mountaineers of our time using modern equipment and it took them 3 days; twice as long!
The book is filled with characters like the steady and resolute second in command, Frank Wild, who kept his men in the fight by forcing them to pack up all of their gear every day because, “Help was on the way, and they needed to be ready to leave”. You will learn of the eccentric navigator, Frank Worsley, whose ability to dead reckon is unsurpassed to his day. The 19-year-old stowaway, Percy Backborow, who, after not being hired for the expedition snuck aboard the ship as a stowaway and proved himself to be an able sailor and explorer to Shackleton. You will get to know the ill-liked physical fitness buff and mechanic, Thomas Orde-Lees, who kept the men going in the darkest of hours.
Its real value is in Shackleton’s unflappable, determined, and immensely strong leadership and his staggering endurance and the overall character of the men in this book. Many of them volunteered to serve in WWI immediately upon their rescue. Folks like these are a rare-breed these days. I find it difficult, with only the written word, to convey the enormity of their achievements and the motivation they will provide the reader. Sans the intonation of speech and the emotion conveyed in a conversation’s facial expressions I’m afraid my description of the book fails to do it justice. Please, believe me when I tell you the book will not disappoint. One of the strengths for which I continually strive is the ability to endure. The worse the conditions and the more challenging the environment or task the more reliable and effective I hope to be. It was this book that inspired me as a Marine on more than one mission that required supreme effort in the face of substantial adversity. It is this book that that drives me to keep you on your feet, learn how to recover quickly, and to be ready for the next mission regardless of how tired you feel.
We faithfully show up at the gym and work as hard as we do for more than physical strength. We do it because we want to become better humans and we want to become better at life. It is when we are at our lowest point physically, it is when we feel our bodies rebel, in utter exhaustion, against the commands given by the mind that we have the greatest opportunity to embody the traits to which we aspire. Those of honor, courage, and commitment. These 3 books continue to help me do a better job both inside and outside the gym. I hope you enjoy them.
LIVE – GET STRONG – WIN