Reading Period: June 20 - August 12
1. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E. Schwab
An easy future recommendation for anyone with a heart. Kind of tragic and heartbreaking, but also bittersweet and beautiful. I had a few issues with the book, most centered around probably the weirdest relationship put to print, but the writing quality and the underlying themes were superb. I listened to this as an audiobook but wished the entire time I had the print version so that I could highlight passages. Overall, this is a book that will probably inspire me in a lot of subtle ways going forward.
2. The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker
This books is an incredible work of absolute genius, but also a complete slog full of outdated pseudoscience. I would say about 25% of this book is completely outdated and useless, 50% is just boring, and the remaining 25% is so incredibly profound that I'm pretty sure my entire worldview has drastically changed. Ernest builds off the work of psychoanalyst giants (Freud, Jung, Rank) in order to explore the human psyche, and much of the book is dedicated to rehashing the work of these psychoanalysts. Unfortunately, Ernest worships Freud and believes that all of human knowledge has been revealed (circa 1973), which is as sad as it is hilarious. Here comes the bombshell: Freud was wrong. It is not sexuality that humans repress and sexual thoughts that explain human behavior. Rather, it is the repression of death. The repression of the horrifying fact that we are all here on this planet for some reason, we are all going to die, and none of us have the slightest clue why. Humans build their entire psychological frame around this denial of death, and this repression explains the underlying motivations behind everything we do.
"Man is split literally in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with." This is the key problem facing humanity. We are aware that we are special, but we are also dumb animals who will die. This begs the question, "what kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?" Unfortunately, there is no way out of this problem. A terrible, horrifying problem. "This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression - and with all this yet to die." So, the question is, how do we get around this? How do humans live their lives given the cosmic insignificance so clearly bestowed upon us? There only solution is illusion. Humans must represses the horrifying insignificance of their animal existence if they are to function normally.
"The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way." This is the key idea of the book. Without repression, we are paralyzed, useless. We are trembling animals gifted with the knowledge of our upcoming non-existence, and we have imperfect bodies that remind us constantly of our mortality. "The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties. Otherwise he would be crippled for action." Ernest coins the terms "the immediate man." An immediate man is someone who narrows their mind and keeps it on small problems in order to live a normal life. This is a "man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports can or works his electric toothbrush." Every productive member of society is an immediate man. We only differ in terms of the layers of illusion we project over the world around us. There is, according to Ernest, really no other way to live.
Live on earth is truly horrifying. "Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures." Humans are not at all immune from this cycle of suffering and death. We are decaying flesh and bone headed rapidly towards the graveyard. As animals driven towards survival, the only way to not shrivel up and die crying in a corner is to completely avoid thinking about this fact. Alright, well what does this tell us about psychology? A whole lot, apparently. The drive to procreate, to write a book, to become famous, to make an impact. All a drive towards the unattainable, towards immortality. "People hunger for immortality and get it where they can." Some through religion, some through family, some through a pursuit of love. Thankfully, Ernest admits psychoanalysis provides no answers. "All the analysis in the world doesn't allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph."
So then, what are we to gain from reading this book? We know that human psychology is driven by a repression of death, and we know that most people completely deny their mortifying situation as eventual worm-food. Also, we know that everyone tries to achieve immortality in various ways, all probably hopeless. So what do we do Ernest? In a tremendous flourish, Ernest gives absolutely no answers. He admits the hopelessness of our situation. He suggests that maybe we turn to religion, or try to repress the terrible knowledge we now have some other way. Really anything to get our minds off the topic. Even though it's all useless. There's not really another way to live your life in any sort of un-terrifying way. This book pulls back the curtain on humanity, and exposes it's greatest, most horrifying secret right on center stage. Then, the book ends without providing any answer to our fundamental problem. Instead, it suggests that we draw the curtain back over the stage, less we lose our minds. Magnificent.
3. Dawnshard, by Brandon Sanderson
He really cannot write a bad story. It's honestly kind of frustrating.
4. As a Man Thinketh, by James Allen
A super short book that is extremely motivating. The basic thesis of this book is that since man is in charge of his thoughts, he is in complete control of his life. To change your circumstances, you must be willing to change yourself. The way to change yourself is to change your thoughts and have a central purpose in life. After all, "how insignificant mere money seeking looks in comparison to a serene life."
"Humanity surges with uncontrolled passion, is tumultuous with ungoverned grief, is blown about by anxiety and doubt only the wise man, only he whose thoughts are controlled and purified, makes the winds and the storms of the soul obey him."
5. The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer
Is it wrong to own a yacht, given that six hundred thousand African children die every year from preventable illness? What is our moral obligation to strangers? Do we have any at all? This book asks all of these questions, and then promptly answers them. It seems clear that if one is to subscribe to utilitarianism, one should donate a large portion of their annual income to fighting poverty. Right now I see moral relativism as the only viable competitor, and, as Peter says, that is "a position that many find attractive only until they are faced with someone who is doing something really, really wrong." Not only should people donate, they should put their money to use where it can be most effective, which is not in America. The median cost of saving a life in the United States is 2.2 million. In Africa, it is between $200 and $2,000. Spending your dollars on buying books for the local library is noble, but it is a terrible misallocation of resources if your goal is to reduce the pain and suffering in the world. Overall, this book has strengthened my resolve to allocate much more of my life towards helping others, and as usual with these kind of books it would be pretty impossible to live my life the same way after reading this.
6. Strangers Drowning, by Larissa MacFarquhar
Larissa is clearly one of the most talented writers I have ever come across, and this book is definitely one of the best books I've read. The structure of this book is very unique, and from a less talented writer, this book would be an incoherent hodgepodge of stories and ideas. In summary, this book chronicles the lives of various "do-gooders" and provides commentary on the ideas surrounding a life built around extreme altruism. Do-gooders are people who understand "that the world is filled with misery, and that most people don't really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things." Still, do-gooders devote their lives to helping strangers, at significant cost to themselves and the people around them. This book is filled with the stories of such people, and the stories are quite profound. At this point in my life, I am contemplating a lot of different decisions in regards to helping others, and each decision would take me down a very different path. This book chronicles the various paths that others took, and I believe I've learned an incredible amount from each story. Thanks for saving me lots of time Larissa!
This books ends up being fairly critical of effective altruism. When confronted with Peter Singer's drowning child argument, Larissa mentions the quote, "a strict utilitarian would not rescue the child from the shallow pond at all: he would leave the child to drown, sell his unmuddied clothes, and donate the proceeds to a charity that could save more than one child with the money." I found this hilarious, as I have wondered if following strict utilitarianism would require every average-intelligence individual to proustite themselves to the world in order to donate to the fight against malaria. Larissa thoroughly shows that the life of a saint, where an individual donates their entire life to helping others, is pretty much the exact opposite of the life of a human. You must be single-mindedly devoted to others, and in order to do so you must cut out every part of your life that is any way enjoyable. Good luck trying to sleep when you are somewhat responsible for the next mass starvation in Africa. Good luck with your personal mental health, as you live in a world where "all effort is insufficient, all glory transient, all solutions inadequate to the challenge, all aid insufficient to the need." Do-gooders have opened themselves up to the continuous, unbearable knowledge that the world is full of horrendous suffering, and they realize, unfortunately, that they have little power to change anything. In an interesting parallel to The Denial of Death, Larissa says that do-gooders need to put up illusions in order to function, as "any do-gooder who is not dead or irredeemable jaundiced by the age of thirty has learned to acquire a degree of blindness in order to get by."
One of the interesting discussions in this book is regarding the idea that helping others is selfish. This is an conversation point that I hear all the time. Apparently, Josh only helps others because it makes Josh feel good to do so. I was never sure how to respond to this line of logic, because it seems a bit ridiculous. People only do things because they want to do them, so even helping others is selfish, because you wanted to help others. I'm not quite sure if you can argue against this, but it seems pretty clear this is generally used as an excuse to not help others. Larissa mentions that "what was more likely to discourage altruism than the suspicion that it was all really selfishness? If doing the difficult altruistic thing was just another form of selfishness, just another way to make yourself feel good, well, there were many easier and more pleasant ways to do that." Many people use philanthropy to feel important and holier-than-thou, but this is not an excuse to refuse to help others! This book spends the same amount of time attacking altruism as it does defending altruism, but it is clear that Larissa believes that saintliness is still needed in this world. "Trying to help is at best useless and at worst damaging; but to stop trying to help is to give up on humanity. Humanitarians are condescending hypocrites, but they are the best of us."
7. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch
This book was incredibly moving. It chronicles the Rwandan Genocide in great detail, and the author provides a lot of helpful backstory and analysis. Funny enough, the author of this book is the husband of the author of "Stranger's Drowning," which was the last book I read. This married couple might be the single greatest writing couple to ever grace this planet. There were times were I felt I should probably pause the audiobook because of how stunning and depressing the narrative was. This book was completely heartbreaking, but it was also informative about the dark side of humanity. It will be hard for me to look at another person the same, as it is clear that everyone is capable of extreme violence and incredible evil. Also, fuck the French. That wicked and immoral group of cowards had such a strong hand in perpetrating this genocide that they should be expelled from any human rights councils, and I hope they burn in hell along with the less-educated demons that cut down innocent school children with machetes.
One of the genocide survivors states that books are good, because at least they end. However, I'm glad that Rwanda's story hasn't ended. I hope that the Rwandan people get a chance to live fully and thrive after so much needless pain. If the past twenty five years have been any indicator, they will.
8. Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio
Not a good book. This massive book could have been a two page essay and it would have had the same effect. None of Ray's ideas are original or insightful, except his take on radical transparency which again could be explained in a paragraph. Thankfully I listed to this as an audiobook at 1.5x speed, just to get through it. Mindless repetition, cringeworthy management practices, and a strong tone of hubris plague this book and make it one of my least favorite of the year.
9. More Money Than God, by Sebastian Mallaby
This book chronicles the history of the hedge fund industry. Overall, it is a really, really good book. As usual, I'm extremely impressed by the ingenuity of macro traders like Soros and Druckenmiller, and I'm skeptical of the success of someone like Paul Tudor Jones, who "told one interviewer, apparently in all sincerity, 'I attribute a lot of my own success to the Elliott Wave approach.'" Overall, Sebastian is very defensive of hedge funds, and his central conclusion at the end of the book is simple:
"In sum, hedge funds do not appear to be especially prone to insider trading or fraud. They offer a partial answer to the too-big-to-fail problem. They deliver value to investors. And they are more likely to blunt trends than other types of investment vehicle."
Unfortunately, Sebastian provides virtually no support for this first claim. He says things throughout the book that sound like "Fund XYZ does not use leverage and pursues a merger arbitrage strategy. This is a very crowed space and there is a lot of competition. The fund had a 40% return in Year 1, a 58% return in Year 2, and a 48% return in Year 3. Also guys don't worry the fund managers didn't insider trade." It is pretty comical how willfully ignorant Sebastian seems to be. People cheat in all walks of life for very small potential payouts. The idea that there are not a lot of cheaters in a virtually unregulated, ultra-competitive industry where cheating can lead to literally billions of dollars of pure profit is comical. I think Sebastian does provide some good support for the rest of the points above, but I still think that this conclusion is one of the hottest finance takes ever put to print. This doesn't detract from the book, and I think I can be strong-willed enough to not downgrade a good just because I disagree with the author's viewpoint. This book will still go down as one of the most informative finance books I've ever read.
10. On the Shortness of Life, by Seneca
"It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it." This is really the main point of this book, and as expected I really enjoyed it. The wisdom contained in Seneca's writing is timeless, with quotes like "what foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!" Amen, brother. I'm glad for more confirmation that my excessive spending at bars and restaurants is justified.
"No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from far-reaching hopes; some men, indeed, even arrange for things that lie beyond life - huge masses of tombs and dedications of public works and gifts for their funeral-pyres and ostentatious funerals. But, in very truth, the funerals of such men ought to be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived but the tiniest span."
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