Reading Period: October 23 - Present
Friday, November 3, 2023
Monday, October 2, 2023
Reading Period: October 2 - October 22
Saturday, August 19, 2023
Sunday, July 23, 2023
Reading Period: July 21 - August 17
1. Tai-Pan (A), by James Clavell
James Clavell has made the past year of my life wonderful. Crazy enough, I think this may be his best work. His book are all so, I really can't think of a better word, dynamic. The level of complexity James is dealing with is unreal: dozens of intricate and noteworthy characters and side plot after side plot. Sure, some of his characters have no depth to them, and there are cartoony villains, but the stories are so satisfying that I do not care in the least. However, I've read a pretty fair criticism that some of his endings rely too heavily on natural disasters. That may be true, but I sort of see this as a reflection of how real life works. Maybe you are stressed at work, constantly arguing with your boss over an assignment. For a month you can barely sleep, half the office on your side, half against you. This battle becomes the central focus of yours, until a few months later when you die from an unexpected heart attack. All the drama, all control humans think they have over their domain, all of it is insignificant. Nature and death rule us all, at least according to James.
It is really hard to compare this novel to Shogun and Noble House. All three books are incredible reading experiences and should be required reading. Overall, I want to say Tai-Pan might be my favorite, just because of how memorable the characters are. Aristotle, Orlov, Skinner, and Gordon Chen are so unique and magnificent. May-may is hilarious, I found myself laughing out loud constantly to her outbursts. I credit the audiobook narrator with bringing to life a lot of these personalities, but it is still obvious that James captured lightning in a bottle. I know the rest of The Asia Saga isn't as well regarded, but at this point I owe it to James to finish.
2. Stories of Your Life and Others (P), by Ted Chaing
Ted is the most thought provoking writer I have yet encountered. If I had written a single one of these stories, I would consider my life an extreme success. Had I penned "Understand" or "Hell is the Absence of God," I would spend a lifetime wandering the streets, wondering what possessed me to write such brilliance. "Story of Your Life" was made into Arrival, and that was nominated for an Oscar and wasn't half as good as the story despite being one of the best movies of the past decade. I am once again extremely jealous of Ted, because I feel that these stories are so on the nose with how my brain works that he must be just a more intelligent clone of me that learned to put pen to paper. My fiction writing overlaps so heavily with his themes that it will make it hard to write in the future, knowing such talent will never flow through my fingers.
3. The Fire Next Time (A), by James Baldwin
It takes an incredible amount of talent to convey in a hundred words an incredibly informative and nuanced view of race. James Baldwin will rightfully assume that the childlike and underdeveloped thoughts of the typical American can be shaken to their core when compared to such depth. This is really just a superb stream of thoughts from James, requiring a insane level of both introspection and writing ability. This may actually be required reading, I will have to see first what I think of his other books.
4. A Book of Five Rings (P), by Miyamoto Musashi
A four hundred year old book by the world's greatest samurai. This is sort of a useless book about dueling, since there are no real descriptions. Miyamtoto will says something like "And then, of course, there is the falling dragon strike. This is where you raise your sword up and cut down your enemy from the center. The method cannot be expressed in writing. You must train." Repeat this a hundred times and you write this book. He gives some interesting advice, like you should not have a favorite weapon, the spirit of defeating one man is the same as defeating ten million, when fighting and in life you must maintain a balance of calmness and aggression. Some good quotes:
"One man can beat ten, so a thousand men can beat ten thousand."
"The true Way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing other than this."
"This is a truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn."
5. King Rat (A), by James Clavell
Missing the magic of his later novels, but I still quite enjoyed it. Given that this was based on James's real life experience as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, the subject matter was quite straightforward and bleak. The commentary on the human condition is interesting, but I think that the overall story of this book was a bit weird. It probably wouldn't work if you didn't know that James was writing from experience. Still, the ending was very solid, as it was fascinating to watch the characters grapple with the idea that the war had ended. The side plots were actually the most gripping parts of the story for me, and I found myself full of hatred for a few of the characters that James spent barely a page on. You can definitely tell that he a master at creating characters.
6. Blackshirts and Reds (A), by Michael Parenti
If this was a satire, it would be a 10/10. Unfortunately it is not. 0/10. Michael is a staunch Marxist, soviet apologist, and very intellectually weak individual. I enjoy reading the work of people that I disagree staunchly with, as long as they have interesting arguments. At one point in the book, Michael criticizes capitalists for attacking communism and class structure with strawmen arguments. If only capitalists understood real communism, they wouldn't be so antagonistic. Then, literally on the next page, he said that capitalists think that rich people are superior, which according to him is obviously not true because rich people need so many protections (monopolies, government corruption, etc.) to stay in power. Maybe the delusional internet tankie will like this sort of baffling incoherence, but I did not. Michael spends a lot of time defending the soviet union, saying that, well, some of the people sent the gulag were bad people, a lot of them died of starvation and not synchronized murder so it's not as bad, the soviet leaders didn't have as large of houses as the White House and that matters, etc. His handwaving over major atrocities was quite disgusting. Given the hindsight of another 25 years of international development, his takes probably could not have aged worse. With extreme human rights abuses in China and Russia, including the invasion of Ukraine and takeover of Hong Kong, Michael's pro-police state position should hopefully fall on deaf ears.
Michael will say things akin to "the worst part of China is that they are capitalist" with a straight face. I think he is simply missing the entire authoritarian/libertarian aspect of the political compass, but he doesn't own up to being a tankie in a cognitively consistent way. He brings up that crime has risen in the soviet bloc since the police state has lost its grip, which, well, it was a police state? He blames the current poverty in Russia and the soviet bloc on capitalism, as if in a counterfactual world continued communism would have been able to compete with global specialization and trade. His evidence consists solely of quotes and cherry picked anecdotes. Some worker in Poland will say ~"I miss communism because now under my current boss they get mad if I am tardy" and then Michael will treat this as a slam dunk. And then later he will admit that central planning has historically been terrible at motivating workers and growing the economy. Probably the best part of the book is when Michael went through a list of everything that usually goes wrong with communism, and then decides not to refute it but rather talk about how Marxism isn't a science but a "social science."
Well, terrible book. Still, it sparked some thoughts of my own. I think we should recognize more that: (efficient economic system) <does not equal> (good moral system). Also, democracy and capitalism aren't totally compatible. You have to fight for both, and often they compete. With democracy you let voters vote in communists and despots (which a lot of times they do), and with capitalism you pave the way for anti-democracy where the rich have outsized control. I love democracy, and I like capitalism. There are plenty of trade-offs in each, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for both.
7. The Doors of Perception (P), by Aldous Huxley
Aldous seems to be quite a brilliant guy. This short book details his experience after taking the psychedelic peyote. Aldous discusses beauty, morality, religion, and various other topics as he reflects on his experience. He states that “half at least of all morality is negative and consists in keeping out of mischief.” Mischief, in the human world, often involves drugs and alcohol. Aldous mentions that as a society we spend more on alcohol and tobacco than we do on education, which to him is not surprising. Despite vast evidence of lung cancer and the dangers of alcoholism and drunk driving, “a firm conviction of the material reality of Hell never prevented medieval Christians from doing what their ambition, lust or covetousness suggested. Lung cancer, traffic accidents and the millions of miserable and misery-creating alcoholics are facts even more certain than was, in Dante's day, the fact of the Inferno. But all such facts are remote and unsubstantial compared with the near, felt fact of a craving, here and now, for release or sedation, for a drink or a smoke.”
Aldous believes that we need to turn to a different drug, likely one of the psychedelic variety. He says every 'Angel' should try it, and “if it terrified him, it would be unfortunate but probably salutary. If it brought him a brief but timeless illumination, so much the better. In either case the Angel might lose a little of the confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning and the consciousness of having read all the books.” Based on my limited knowledge of the subject matter, I find myself actually agreeing with him.
8. The Communist Manifesto (P), by Karl Marx
I probably shouldn’t have watched the movie First They Killed My Father right before reading this book. This movie chronicles the real story of a young girl’s experience during the Cambodian genocide, one of the worst events in human history. Karl argues in this Manifesto for violent revolution, as he says Communist aims "can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing conditions." Karl's aims for “the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries of the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production.” Communist ideologues in Cambodia took Marx to heart, enacted a revolution of the same grand vision, and murdered two million innocent people.
It is clear in my mind that the past century has shown that the road to serfdom is well paved by Marxist ideas. Communist countries around the world are beacons for starvation, genocide, and other forms of immense human suffering. Violent revolutions create violence, and the leftover socialist state powers aren’t keen to uphold basic human rights. Centralized economic planning is clearly inferior to capitalistic competition, and the only successful communist countries lean heavily towards capitalistic markets. I see two forms of modern of communism: economic communism and governmental communism. Capitalism is the opposite of the first, democracy the opposite of the second. You can clearly have capitalistic markets without the democracy (China), and countries that rely on economic communism/central planning fail (Soviet Union, countries in South America). My fear is that capitalism is natural, but democracy is really an outlier in human history. A government by the people is a beautiful, yet flawed, weak link that only survives if we relentlessly fight for it. Runaway capitalism can actually drastically weaken democracy, something many liberals correctly point out. Now, let’s discuss Marx’s actual writings.
Karl believes capitalism will result in overproduction and crises, and he sees the state as a highly intellectual and empathetic organization capable of keeping the public's interest at heart. Both of these views are clearly incorrect. What is Communism, really? “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.” Communism also consists of: heavy progressive taxes, abolition of right to inheritance, confiscation of property of emigrants and rebels, monopolized banking by the state, centralization of communication and transport, ownership of production by the state, abolition of distinction between town and country, and free education for children. The problem I have is that "workers own the means of production" is substituted for "the state owns the means of production," and Marx assumes these to be equivalent. Discarding the obvious impracticality, communism is theoretically not a bad idea. A utopian world where everyone is equal is hard to argue against, even if it completely lacks incentives and economic freedom. A utopian version of libertarian ideas still may result in suffering for the weak and lazy. Once practicality is considered, and we start thinking of real-world applications for Marxist ideas, I clearly fall on the side of economic freedom. I think capitalism is truly better for society in aggregate (even for the weak and lazy). Three reasons: the world is built on incentives, governments and militaries tend to be power-hungry, inefficient monsters who wage unjust wars and tread on individual rights, and Marx provides lofty ideas that lack any practical implementation.
Still, I will credit this book on actually making good points about social class. I do often view the world through the Marxist lens of proletariat and bourgeoisie, and this lens is immensely useful. Throughout history this divide has been persistent, a divide that is obviously not deserved. Karl says "In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past." Due to inheritance and luck, a few people are born ungodly rich (or in great circumstances to become rich) and the majority are born poor (with no potential to change). Marx points out that the poor don't really have private property or economic freedom anyway, so doing away with such concepts only really hurts the rich. The world is immensely unfair. It is a bit ridiculous that while millions of children starve to death every year, there are billionaires who sink hundreds of millions of dollars into abstract art. We can obviously do better, and we should. I just really don't think Communism is the best way to go about it. In fact, I believe it is one of the worst.
On a humorous note, Karl makes some interesting claims about the family structure. He claims that Christianity is against marriage since it advocates for celibacy, which is a ridiculous claim about the "go forth and multiply" religion that preached for thousands of years that adulterers should be stoned. Communists believe that women should be communal and not shackled to one individual man. While this reeks of teenage-boy-fantasy-land mentality, Karl's justification is even crazier. He says "bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common, and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women." Karl is convinced "bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common," as he believes the upper class is full of seducers and swingers who spend all their time targeting each others wives. Even if this was true, what a crazy argument! A bit of the "you can get heroin anywhere so just make it legal" line heard at a middle school where no kids have ever tried heroin. The last thing we need is to look at the actions of a fictional and slandered bourgeois class as a model for how to live.
Even though I fundamentally disagree with basically every single one of Marx's beliefs, I understand why his theories changed the world. Social class can be a pervasive and even evil means of oppression. The caste system in India is not a model for how we should live, it is a cautionary tale. To the extent capitalism feeds into massive power divides between individuals, we need to turn to a democratic government to create positive incentives that level the playing field. Communist revolutions are not the solution to this divide, as the past hundred years makes abundantly clear. My paradoxical take is that economic freedom and individuality is required to achieve the aims of communism (a freer and fairer society). Maybe I am wrong, but erring on the side of protecting human freedom is the one strategy Communist revolutionaries never seem to try. How has that worked out?
9. Bright Lights, Big City (P), by Jay McInerney
"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning." This is a certified classic. This book is basically all about grief and about trying to moving through life despite trauma. "You keep thinking that with practice you will eventually get the knack of enjoying superficial encounters, that you will stop looking for the universal solvent, stop grieving. You will learn to compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure." I liked the second-person perspective that Jay uses, especially since I was so able to identify with the character. I wonder if people without such an overlap in their early 20's experience in a major city will like the book, and honestly I don't really know. Jay is a good writer, but the story isn't particularly intriguing and the ending is a bit flat. I sort of wish he picked a side and chose either redemption or depression, but I guess the middle-ground he took is a bit more realistic. Loved the book, despite its many flaws.
10. The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (P), by Ludwig von Mises
I think Ludwig has some really good takes, but this book is sort of a rant, which detracts from a lot of the otherwise good material. Ludwig is fiery, and needless to say he could certainly tone down some of his remarks. He believes that capitalism is the only defense against authoritarianism and that communists and socialists are stupid, power-hungry liars who tread on human freedom. Luwig denounces Marx and Lenin as "professional revolutionaries" who never learned anything about the market economy. I think he pretty much misses the fact that runaway capitalism can lead to similar level power-imbalances, something we have essentially seen with massively widening income inequality.
Ludwig believes that it is liberty and human freedom (especially economic freedom) that has brought about the massive success of the West and has led to stagnation and waste in the East (the Soviet Union and China in 1956). He says "what separates East and West is first of all the fact that the people of the East never conceived the idea of liberty." I fundamentally disagree with his simplification of two related ideas. First, Ludwig essentially says that the people in the East are backwards and brought poverty on themselves by not caring about liberty or using new technology. This is grossly misleading and discounts the guns/germs/steel/luck/natural resources aspects that probably played a larger role in the capital dominance of Western powers. Second, he is staunchly of the opinion that luck and circumstance don't play a major role in the outcome of an individual. Another seventy years of sociological research and the strong role of nature/nurture make this much harder to believe than he lets on. Ludwig also claims that in terms of global poverty and suffering, people "fail to realize that the shocking circumstances they describe are the outcome of the absence of capitalism, the remnants of the precapitalistic past of the effects of policies sabotaging the operation of capitalism." However, another seventy years of data shows that despite massive GDP growth in the United States, we have seen wage stagnation in the lowest class and pretty similar aggregate poverty levels.
Still, I think it is actually a good take that what people decry as problems due to capitalism are actually just class conflicts and disparity that existed far before, during the feudal societies the authoritarian governments that until recently fell out of power. Capitalism hasn't really been around for very long. Also, Ludwig says that the greatest flaw of socialists is that they assume that the "unprecedented technological improvements of the last two hundred years were not caused or furthered by the economic policies of the age. They were not an achievement of classical liberalism, free trade, laissez faire and capitalism. They will therefore go on under any other system of society's economic organization." Ludwig further states that the fundamental socialist idea is that "the economic interests of the masses are hurt by the operation of capitalism for the sole benefit of the 'exploiters' and that socialism will improve the common man's standard of living." I see this as sort of a killing blow to central planning. Is socialism a good substitute for capitalism, one that creates higher levels of productivity that will improve people's standard of living? Well, historically speaking, no.
Ludwig asks an important question. Should we surrender our freedom to an omnipotent state, where our lives will function as "cogs in a vast machine designed and operated by an almighty planmaker? Should the mentality of the arrested civilizations sweep the ideals for the ascendancy of which thousands and thousands have sacrificed their lives?" I guess, no? Well, given that central planning has never worked, why are anti-capitalists fighting so strongly for it? "No intelligent man could fail to recognize that what the socialists, communists and planners were aiming at was the most radical abolition of the individuals' freedom and the establishment of government omnipotence. Yet the immense majority of the socialist intellectuals were convinced that in fighting for socialism they were fighting for freedom." The socialist message is that we should give the state the power over individuals so that the government can split up the means of production and make things fair. However, every time this happens, the state oppresses the people and takes away their freedoms. Cue the totalitarian regime with no checks and balances. Ludwig says we used to fall for this sort of ruse, but now with all the real-world examples, people realize that freedom cannot be preserved under a socialist regime. I'm not entirely convinced.
Ludwig claims that under capitalism, the upper class is much less safe. "The feudal lord does not serve consumers and is immune to the displeasure of the populace." If you are the son of a railroad CEO, you still have to worry about the up and coming airplane industry. You still have to serve the needs of the masses or invest in products that will, or you lose your shirt. I think this is an important distinction. Also, you can't make a living as an artist, but should you? Ludwig says that capitalism is simple: "those who satisfy the wants of a smaller number of people only collect fewer votes - dollars - than those who satisfy the wants of more people. In moneymaking the movie stat outstrips the philosopher; the manufacturers of Pinkapinka outstrip the composer of symphonies." You probably can't do what you love (painting all day), and still earn a living, unless it is useful for someone else. I hate this as much as anyone, but it is a reality, and I doubt any useful economic system could make this so. As Ludwig says, the system of capitalism is really good at achieving immense economic progress. The idea that the centralized planning required in socialism and communism can in any way compete is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Ludwig says modern socialists play word games and advocate for some flavor of "untotalitarian totalitarianism." I pretty much agree with Ludwig here that there is no compromise. Either you hand your freedoms over to the government and pray they will be omnipotent planners who have your best interests at heart and won't oppress you, or you don't. There's a lot less in-between than the revolutionaries would like to suggest.
Overall, I see why Mises was such an influential Austrian economist. His takes are somewhat bland and incorrect in some areas, but I found others pretty insightful. Regardless, it has been pretty useful to read both sides of the capitalist/communist debate and form my own opinions.
Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Reading Period: June 4 - July 21
1. The Demon in the Freezer (A), by Richard Preston
A bit disjointed and not quite as terrifying as The Hot Zone, but still quite terrifying. Richard now takes us through Smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases in human history. Unlike Ebola, which is actually terrifying in its natural state, the worry of Smallpox is that it could be weaponized by a bad actor intent on murdering millions or even billions of humans. Humanity eradicated Smallpox in 1980, one of humanity's greatest accomplishments. Yet, it is still around in various freezers. There is quite the interesting political battle mentioned in the book. The world had a chance to band together and completely destroy the disease (and probably would have in the early 90's), but in the late 90's the world powers changed course and decided to keep Smallpox around for lab experiments. A controversial stance, one that I am not qualified to have a real opinion on (but why the actual hell would you not kill it with prejudice?). The book discuss the Soviet bioweapons program, current capabilities of weaponized Smallpox, and Anthrax, another scary pathogen. At the end, I am left with only one thought: why are Australian researchers publishing research that shows how to create versions of Smallpox completely resistant to vaccination? Seriously, what are they doing over there? How is this sort of research allowed to enter the public domain? Will open source kill us all?
Despite being one of the most likely existential risks to humanity, I am simply not knowledgeable enough about biology to have a real take on the danger of chemically engineered pandemics. Still, reading about the topic has been fascinating, and I will likely dive further in with some other authors.
2. Bullshit Jobs (A), by David Graeber
A bullshit job is a job that contributes nothing to society, and even the employee believes that his or her job is bullshit. A lot of jobs are meaningless paper pushing or manual office work that could be easily automated. Some people spend a majority of their workday checking boxes on forms or providing temporary fixes to problems that could be fixed permanently with little effort. Stunningly, according to a poll done in the UK in 2015, 40% of workers believe that their jobs are bullshit.
David presents some interesting ideas about the role of work in human happiness and why so many bullshit jobs persist. When a politician says "this new healthcare reform will create ten thousand new jobs," it is probably the case that every single one of those jobs is bullshit. More red tape creates more bullshit, meaningless jobs. The effect of having a bullshit job is interesting. Even if you are paid well, having a job that lacks any sort of positive impact is frustratingly boring, and many people quit due to the toll such meaninglessness takes on their mental health. David ends the book with his anarchist views and a discussion of UBI, but I don't find his takes well informed or particularly convincing. Probably not worth reading the book, but the article that the book is based on is short and will give you David's most important points.
3. Hiroshima (A), by John Hersey
4. Foster (A), by Claire Keegan
Friday, May 12, 2023
Reading Period: May 10 - June 4
1. Persepolis (P), by Marjane Satrapi
An easy 10/10. A graphic novel autobiography of Marjane's upbringing in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Emotional, gripping, and beautiful. I am absolutely reading the sequel.
2. Wraiths of the Broken Land (P), by S. Craig Zahler
"It looks like your belly has room for scorpions."
Well, definitely the most disturbing book I have ever read. I just got done with binging Craig's three movies, the most notable being "Bone Tomahawk." I really have no idea why I am so drawn to his films. Obviously the over the top violence provides the aesthetic of astonishment, but I actually think that the storytelling itself is pretty good. Not amazing, and there are plenty of dialogue challenges, but for some reason I am totally engaged. Craig has written two books, so I decided to read the second one. The book was enjoyable and grotesque, but he simply doesn't have the writing prowess to take the narrative to the next level. Here is an example quote, detailing the current character development of the main character, Nathaniel: "he was a corporeal shell that lived in the present, divorced from his former identity, obeying the threats of an evil gunfighter." There is just some amateurish quality to calling Long Clay, a compelling antihero gunslinger, the word "evil."
The story is gritty enough to be in a league of its own, but I really wonder what this novel would look like with better writing and better defined character motivations. It would probably be incredible.
3. Meditations (P), by Marcus Aurelius
This book is full of wisdom and elegance. It is astounding that Marcus was the most powerful person on the planet and still managed to have a legacy as a philosopher. This book is full of simple themes (don't fear death, don't care what others think of you, be rational and avoid outburst of emotion, and focus your life on living virtuously), and there are plenty of awesome quotes: "it never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own." Despite our technological progress, the wisdom of the ancients applies to modern life as much as it ever did. One of the problems I usually have with stoicism is the idea of "taking everything on the chin" and living your current role to your best ability, and not striving for large change. "People who feel hurt and resentment: picture them as the pig at the sacrifice, kicking and squealing all the way. Like the man alone in his bed, silently weeping over the chains that bind us. That everything has to submit. But only rational beings can do so voluntarily." I think there is some sort of revolutionary blood in me that refuses to accept my situation and that of others. Controlling how you feel about your situation is strength, but I don't think that accepting it is.
4. The Manual (P), by Epictetus
I wanted to read a book every day for a week (this was day #7 and book #11) so I added this short collection of Epictetus wisdom for the last day. I'll probably go back to some longer novels and harder material after this little experiment. I think Epictetus is my main man for Stoicism. His thoughts: if it falls outside of your control, let it go. Treat everything as borrowed from creation (even loved ones), soon to be returned. Give up friends who are bad influences, give up material desires, and be prepared to face ridicule. Better to be poor and virtuous than rich and filled with fear and guilt. Even if you set out to gain power to help others, you risk being corrupted along the way. Instead of seeking riches, build the sort of character that attracts loyal and honest friends. Epictetus also drops some absolute dimes in terms of quotes.
"Some young women confuse their self-worth with their ability to attract the attention of men, and so put all their energies into makeup, clothing, and jewelry. If only they realized that virtue, honor, and self-respect are the marks of true beauty."
"Continually remind yourself that you are a mortal being, and someday will die. This will inspire you not to waste precious time in fruitless activities, like stewing over grievances and striving after possessions."
5. Sky Raiders (P), by Brandon Mull
My younger brother's favorite series. Given that I made him read The Stormlight Archive, I figured I owed him this. YA fantasy with pretty cool worldbuilding. Reading YA is quite a breath of fresh air, it makes you feel like a superstar reader. Plus seeing these worlds through the lens of an eleven year old is quite nostalgic and cute. Makes me miss Percy Jackson!
6. Antifragile (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Well, I did it. I read every one of Nassim's books. I am going to quote my first review of one of his books, Black Swan: "I hate single-idea books that are four hundred pages, I think it is a crime against the reading community to write such a book. Nicholas has committed this crime, creating an absolute slog of a book filled with incoherent thoughts and random attacks on imaginary critics." This applies to every one of his books without question. What I didn't realize at the time was the power of audiobooks. The utility I get from running on a trail counterbalances my annoyance with the frequent mention in my ears of sweaty, incoherent Italians. Yes, 80% of what Nassim says is redundant nonsense. His take in this book that no real innovation comes from science and academics was laughable (ever heard of the atomic bomb or index funds?) However, the mind of a egotistical contrarian will occasionally spew an interesting thought. Reading the entire Incerto changed my outlook in a positive way, and for that I will say that despite the slog it was worth it.
7. The Holy Bible (P), by God?
One of my life goals was to read the Bible. It took me ten years, but I finally read every single word. I am not joking when I say reading this my greatest reading accomplishment. I am sure that some small minority of Christians have read all or most of it (no one that I know has read the entire print version), but I am more impressed given that I am not religious (was raised Catholic but have been agnostic since early high school). It took quite a bit of effort and a lot of fighting through boredom. Overall, it was worth it. I have a greater grasp on the religion than ever before, to a point where I finally feel like I understand the entire picture. Christianity is something that I could discuss for days on end. I will try to keep this post short, focusing on quotes/stories.
Full of insane stories and plenty of mass murder and horrific death. "And the king asked her, 'what is your trouble?' She answered, 'this woman said to me, "give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow." So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, "give your son, that we may eat him." But she has hidden her son.' (2 Kings 6:28). Crazy stuff. There's also my favorite insult of all time. "And when Joram saw Jehu, he said, 'is it peace, Jehu?' He answered, 'what peace can there be, so long as the whorings and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many'" (2 Kings 9:22). The Pentateuch (first five books) has the most ridiculous stories and is way more "eye for eye" and "send a plague that kills everyone" than the latter part of the old testament. It is interesting that I found some stories more believable (Moses parting the red sea, the burning bush, Jonah being eaten by a whale) simply because of my early indoctrination. Reading new stories (a donkey talking (Numbers 22), Daniel literally slaying a dragon by feeding it cakes made of fat and hair (Daniel 14)) was shocking. Did you know that that was why Daniel was sent to the lion's den? If you would have asked me growing up if I believed that Daniel escaped the lion's den by praying, I would have been certain. But if you would have asked me if I believed he was put there for using cakes to explode a dragon, I would have had some doubts. This cherry picking is common, certainty about the uncertain and faith only when convenient. Another reason why everyone of faith should read the Bible.
Looking back at these 39 books, I liked Proverbs the best. There was some bad: "do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol" (Proverbs 23:13). But there was also plenty of good: "a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). The Bible in general is way more poetic than you would expect. Without the religious relevance it would be a worthless read, but the diversity of the books makes it at least more interesting.
These 27 books are thoroughly misunderstood. Jesus was not a hippie. He was far from a good-natured pacifist who came to the Earth to spread peace and love. Jesus was something entirely new, entirely different. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:34).
Jesus was a fire and brimstone preacher who demanded allegiance and sacrifice. The old testament says pretty much nothing about Hell. Jesus brings eternal suffering to the forefront. The old testament rules were more lax. Under Jesus, you can now sin even just by thinking impure thoughts: "but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Jesus was a radical. Time and time again he rallies against the rich, saying that the only way to achieve eternal life and avoid eternal suffering is to "sell your possessions, and give to the needy" (Luke 12:33). He is clear that "...you cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). This makes the materialism and greed of most Christians even more astounding. I have said it before and will say it again, but the most ignored quote in human history is: "again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Jesus also continues the tradition of being anti-divorce, another command from God himself that we all choose to ignore: "but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31).
People somehow think that the old testament is fire and brimstone and the new testament is sunshine and rainbows. There is plenty in the new testament not to like. Commands to be a good slave (Colossians 3:22) and in-your-face examples of the extreme misogynistic views held by the Catholic church, even to this day: "the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for them to speak in church" (1 Corinthians 14:34). Read that again. Then laugh, then get a little sad. Then read that quote again. Then look me in the eyes and tell me again why women can't be priests? Also, there is nothing in this book about priests being tied to vows of chastity. The whole "priests are married to the church and thus cannot have a family" is something invented way after the Bible by the church. From my reading it seems that men of the holy order were expected to have families and especially wives (1 Timothy 3:2). Again, another reason that it is important to read the Bible. An added bonus is I can now argue with my vegetarian friends "one believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables" (Romans 14:2).
Just as with the old testament, I found the same sort of cognitive dissonance pop up when reading the new testament. It seems my early indoctrination into the faith made some stories familiar and more "believable," but other stories frightened the small Catholic-inclined part of my brain. Jesus was raised from the dead, sure, but after he was crucified was it really true that a bunch of dead corpses dug out of their graves and walked around? (Matthew 27:51). There are plenty of contradictions in the bible (the whole feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread story is repeated constantly with large differences). Also, it is really only the gospel of John that adds such close ties between Jesus and God: "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). I actually think that without this gospel ("I am the way, the truth, and the life" etc.) the Christians five hundred years later probably would not have settled on the eventual decision that Jesus was God. Again, this decision was not at all obvious after finishing the Bible. Most of Christian beliefs stem from the decisions of a powerful group of often corrupt individuals that claimed for thousands of years to have a direct line to God (The Church), and not from the Bible.
One last note on this religion. Jesus makes it clear that the cost of discipleship is high: "if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). You have to love God more than anything else. You have to renounce everything, give it all up. Desires, passions, relationships. All are meaningless when compared to the glory of God. You will very likely need to live a life in extreme poverty, due to your generosity. You turn the other cheek, you do not fight back. You live in fear of God and in fear of eternal punishment. You police your thoughts ruthlessly, as even sinful thoughts are a sin. You do not get divorced. You abstain from excess. You live your life as a disciple, a martyr. This is not an easy religion, not one that will make your friends or get you accolades. This is a religion that ends in prediction, with the book of Revelation. An extremely metal ending, honestly, full of fantastical imagery and a terrifying war between angels and demons. The second coming of Jesus Christ is coming soon, which means plagues and death await. This arrival will spur mass suffering and throw many people into the screaming terror of eternal hellfire.
Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart. It is not a religion for people who value their families over the Word. It is not a religion for people that go to church twice a year. It is not a religion for the rich. What is it? It is a religion of martyrs. It is a religion for people who would die for the cause at a moment's notice. It is a religion centered around the idea of human sacrifice, starting with the example of Jesus Christ on the cross. He showed us the Way. His bloody body stretched out on the cross is the central theme, the path forward. To achieve eternal life, you will need to go to the same lengths of sacrifice. You will need to renounce everything and live a life of pure piety. There were once Japanese monks who would spend hours with a spiked metal rope, whipping themselves on the back to exhaustion. These monks, heads turned towards heaven and bodies bleeding on the stone floor, understood more about the core of this religion than any of us.
8. High Output Management (A), by Andrew Grove
This book is widely read and highly reviewed, but I didn't learn anything new from it. Maybe it was revolutionary in the 80's, but I am suspecting that once you have read one business book, you have read them all. Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things remain the only two business books that I found compelling.
9. The Hot Zone (A), by Richard Preston
A terrifying non-fiction book, certainly on the same level as many of the nuclear books I read at the end of last year. This book is about the Ebola, a terrifying virus with a 50 - 90% kill rate that makes you bleed out of your eyeballs and causes your skin to fall off. Generally it kills you within seven days, and then your body promptly degenerates into a disgusting heap of flesh and blood. Did I mention it mutates and has occasionally gone airborne? The first half of this book is iconic. The descriptions of Ebola deaths are insane, and I am convinced that dying from such a virus is much worse than dying from radiation poising. This book is full of dramatic tension, and Richard is clearly a masterful writer. The last third of the book is nothing special, but the book taken as a whole is still near perfection. A must-read.
10. The Wisdom of Life (P), by Arthur Schopenhauer
Given my love for pessimistic philosophy, Schopenhauer was inevitable. I figured I'd start with The Wisdom of Life, a collection of three slightly optimistic essays. The first, "Personality, or What a Man is," was the best. Arthur follows some of the Stoic and Buddhist traditions. He claims that one of the main obstacles towards happiness is the desire to be well liked by others. He also rallies against materialism, claiming that "what a man has in himself is, then, the chief element in his happiness." According to this tradition, it is not what happens to you, it is how you think about those events that matter. Arthur also quotes some of the greats: "the happiness we receive from ourselves is greater than that which we obtain from our surroundings" (Epicurus), "it is not wealth but character that lasts" (Socrates), and "when Socrates saw various articles of luxury spread out for sale, he exclaimed: how much there is in the world I do not want."
Health is extremely important in Arthur's worldview: "health outweighs all other blessings so much that one may really say that a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king." Randomly, he makes the following remark: "for without a proper amount of daily exercise no one can remain healthy." For all of his thoughts, the one I identify with the most is the following: "and still men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has." Despite hundreds of years passing, his words ring true to this day. Especially among us workhorses that feel the pressure of intense, all-encompassing careers. "It is a great piece of folly to sacrifice the inner for the outer man, to give the whole or the greater part of one's quiet, leisure, and independence for splendor, rank, pomp, titles and honor." Arthur favors leisure, and strongly argues against a life aimed at fame and fortune. "Not fame, but that which deserves to be famous, is what a man should hold in esteem." Funny enough, one quote rings especially true in our generation, or I guess it was true across all generations: "fame and youth are too much for a mortal at one and the same time."
Life is simple: "the most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom." Either you are too poor (and thus seek a life of status-seeking) or too rich (you are hopelessly bored). "Ordinary people think merely how they shall spend their time; a man of any talent tries to use it." One final quote I thought was funny: "the cheapest sort of pride is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud; otherwise he would not have recourse to those which he shares with so many millions of his fellowmen." The last part of the book is really all about dueling. Particularly, why dueling is stupid and why this ridiculous idea of knight's honor is a tragedy (the strongest person, or best marksman, (the strongest person, or best marksman, should win? What about the one who is actually morally correct about the issue at hand?) Overall, I think this was a good introduction to Arthur's work. Given by the sheer amount of notes I have despite the short page count, I am slightly worried about the 1,000 pages of The World as Will and Representation that awaits me.