Reading Period: October 10 - December 31
1. What We Owe the Future (A), by William MacAskill
Yet another Effective Altruism (audio) book, this one focused on longtermism, the concept that future, unborn generations are extremely morally important. Given that humanity is so young, it follows that there could be trillions of humans after us. The lives of these trillions of humans will be greatly influenced by the choices society makes today, and because some events (artificial intelligence, nuclear war, chemically engineered pandemics) can make this future non-existent, we should expend extra effort to ensure that future generations are given the chance to live and thrive. A lot of this book overlaps with other books I've read this year, but obviously I agree with most of William's points and am strongly convinced by the overall cause. One new topic that William brings up is economic stagnation. William discusses how stagnation can happen, and lays out a pretty convincing argument that this sort of stagnation could be extremely harmful to our long term future. Overall, persuasive book that has given me a lot to think about.
2. The Art of Living (P), by Epictetus
Stoic philosophy at its best. Virtue ethics is way less stressful than all this overbearing utilitarian stuff I've been waist deep in this year. I'm quite convinced a life focused on internal character and virtue would lead to the most personal happiness and probably the greatest amount of spiritual success. The points that resonated with me the most: focus only on things that are within your control, never depend on the admiration of others, mindset is everything.
"First, say to yourself what you would be; then do what you have to do"
"Arrogance is the banal mask for cowardice; but far more important, it is the most potent impediment to the flourishing life."
"You can only be one person - either a good person or a bad person. You have two essential choices."
3. The End is Always Near (A), by Dan Carlin
This audiobook was disappointing, as it jumps around to various unconnected topics (raising children, nuclear war, ancient Rome) and lacks a coherent narrative. The title is misleading, and it seems clear that I was looking for something else.
4. Midnight in Chernobyl (A), by Adam Higginbotham
Legitimately terrifying. Easily one of the best non-fiction books I've read all year. I strongly recommend this audiobook, but maybe readers should wait for a time period when nuclear war is a bit less likely. Also, none of this changes my aggressively confident pro-nuclear power stance.
5. The Making of the Atomic Bomb (A), by Richard Rhodes
Very clearly the best non-fiction book I've read. The level of detail in this book was astounding, and I learned an incredible amount about physics and history during this thirty-seven hour audiobook. The first part of the book is almost entirely focused on nuclear physics, its development and progression throughout the early 20th century. The next part chronicles the beginnings of the Manhattan project, including detailed biographies of the important members involved. The third part is the shortest, an account of the Trinity test and the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The final act of the book was horrifying, and it will be impossible to unsee the images of nuclear consequences that Richard forced into my brain.
"Nuclear weapons ensure the destruction of any participating nations, unless war itself is abolished." Richard's unbiased commentary, generally displayed through the lens of quotes from physicists, was also terrifying. The nuclear bomb is likely mankind's most important invention to date, as it is likely humankind's most probable means of destruction. Paradoxes abound. The bomb forces peace between world superpowers, but if that peace is breached even slightly, the human race is potentially exterminated. The Manhattan project's scientists, upon liberating the power of the atom, were excessively burdened by the idea of billions of innocent deaths. This mental burden should be shared by us all, if we are to avoid annihilation.
6. Noble House (A), by James Clavell
Insanely good story. James might be one of the most compelling writers I have ever come across. His ability to weave interesting narratives together without losing the reader's interest is impressive. This book was super long, the audiobook being around fifty-eight hours in total. A few of the side plots could have been shortened, or at least tied up better. Still, incredible work of fiction.
7. Shogun (A), by James Clavell
Well, for sure one of my favorite stories ever. James has quite an incredible writing ability. The characters, the plot twists, the drama, all were extraordinary. The reader feels transported to 1600s Japan, and it is a compelling enough journey to warrant fifty-four hours of listening. Contrasting this with Noble House is difficult, as both were incredible, but Shogun feels more straightforward and contained. I need a quick break from The Asian Saga, but I will return!
8. West with the Night (A), by Beryl Markham
I'm definitely not the type of person usually interested in memoirs, but still, this book was incredibly well done. Beryl has quite the unique background, and her prose is legitimately fantastic. Her writing quality is likely the best I have come across, a beautiful display of talent. I would read the book again, just to marvel at Beryl's writing ability.
9. Can't Hurt Me (A), by David Goggins
I discovered David a few years ago on a podcast, but at first I didn't like him. He is not the kind of guy you want to grab a beer with, and it was clear at the time he was more of an individual achievement guy, not someone you'd probably want to have as a friend or on your team. Also, his accomplishments seemed tainted by his stupidity. Running one hundred miles without training is impressive, but most of the impressiveness is trumped by its stupidity. I never liked people who bragged about doing impressive things the wrong way, as if I should be doubly impressed by someone's marathon time given they didn't train and tore an ligament during the race. To me those stories are always masochistic and immature, whereas intelligent, diligent training is worth much more of my respect.
My first impression of David Goggins was very wrong. His mindset is powerful, and once I learned of his background in detail my impression of him completely changed. His upbringing was extremely challenging, yet he turned his life around and became a Navy Seal. He transitioned to ultrarunning, and later broke the 24-hour pullup record. His accomplishments are impressive, but to be honest nothing particularly special. There are a lot of books about impressive people. His attitude, however, is what sets him apart from the rest. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, stop being so soft, stop whining. Push your self. Things are going bad in your life, and a lot of that blame falls on you. Fix it. Get after it. Wake up at 5am every morning and do 300 push ups. David Goggins says these sort of things, but laced with enough wild profanity and extreme personal stories, you can't help but start to be convinced by all of it.
10. The Doomsday Machine (P), by Daniel Ellsberg
For my last book of the year, I decided to cap off my exploration into nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This book was very insightful, as Daniel was previously very involved in the US government's nuclear war planning, as a consultant for the RAND corporation. His experience during this time is fascinating, and he discusses issues with the US nuclear plan that are quite horrifying. The first half of the book details his RAND experience, and the second half discusses his thoughts on the nuclear system as a whole. My craziest takeaway from the original US nuclear plan was that if the US were attacked by Russia, we would immediately nuke both Russia AND China, regardless of China's involvement. Better dead than red I guess? I'm glad Daniel was able to completely revise that plan. Many of the questions Daniel prompts are very interesting. In order to avoid a decapitation attempt, where Washington is blown up in order to prevent a retaliatory strike on Russia, delegation of nuclear authority is necessary. This delegation is fraught with risks (i.e. Dr. Strangelove). The US and Russia both admit to essentially having Doomsday machines, as a nuclear first-strike by either party prompts a near-automated full retaliation by the other party. This opens up the very possibility of false alarms triggering the end of the civilization (which have nearly happened enough to be a trend), and it seems that a apocalyptical terrorist organization could nuke Washington or Moscow and probably trigger the end of mankind.
This book is terrifying, but it also brings up important, educated points that I hadn't considered previously. People argue about the ethics of dropping the atom bomb on Japan, but they generally ignore the fact that we were scorching Japan with firebombs, killing between half million and a million civilians in total. One hundred thousand Japanese were burned alive in Tokyo in a single night of firebombing, twenty to forty thousand more deaths than at Nagasaki. The method became different, but the death toll was more or less the same. Daniel provides the history of bombing innocent civilians, and makes it clear where he falls on the issue. One haunting quote by American military general Curtis LeMay reads, "we're at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed? Crank her up. Let's go." The scariest part to me, is that this is a somewhat convincing take. How many Germans civilians would you kill to save the lives of a million US troops? Two million? Ten million? How many Germans families would you reduce to ash to shorten the war by six months? If doing so would spare six million additional Jews from the concentration camps? Would the answer "all of them" be immoral?
This book, unfortunately, is not perfect. There is quite a bit of revisionist history, and Daniel is very susceptible to hindsight bias. The biggest glaring flaw of the book is that his experience is outdated, with him admitting as much in the early chapters. Daniel is fifty years late from being truly clued into the US nuclear system, so he is pretty much unable to draw any sort of tangible solutions to the questions he proposes. Regardless, Daniel's disagreement with current US nuclear policy is interesting. He believes that "any threat of first use of a nuclear weapon is a terrorist threat," and he is strongly in favor of disarmament, with the eventual goal being a worldwide ban of nuclear weapons. I am somewhat convinced by these points, but the realist in me assumes that humanity will continue on its current path, forever on the "brink" of nuclear annihilation. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is quoted as saying "The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost." I have hope that humanity's future political and military leaders will avoid existential disaster, however probable it might be. Not faith, but hope. It seems that is all we can ask for.