Sunday, January 1, 2023

First 10 Books I Read in 2023

 Reading Period: January 1 - January 15

1. Atomic Habits (P), by James Clear


    Extraordinary book full of life-altering knowledge. If you can control your habits, you can control your life. The useful advice per word ratio is higher in this book than probably any other. I definitely agree with James's assessment that discipline and delaying gratification are the keys to success. I found the idea of habit stacking interesting, and James's claim that "identifying" as a particular attribute is very interesting. Someone who claims to be "trying to quit smoking" and someone who "doesn't smoke" have very different identities, with the latter being a much more powerful guard against bad habits. I've thoroughly benefited from this simple change, to a surprising degree of success. I would recommend this book to everyone.

2. Why Buddhism is True (P), by Robert Wright


    Robert's background in evolutionary psychology makes this an especially interesting read. Evolutionary psychologists have an annoying habit of over-subscribing natural selection as an intelligent-design level explanation for all of human behavior. Robert does this, and takes it a step further and uses natural selection to try to justify the "truth" behind Buddhist practices, specifically the "non-self" and mindfulness mediation. I don't think Robert ever manages to climb out of the "the self is an illusion" holes he digs for himself, but he does make a convincing case for implementing meditation into everyday life. "Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them." Being aware of your thoughts paradoxically gives you the ability to let go of the unhealthy ones. I was thoroughly convinced by Robert's points regarding the importance of mindfulness, and I will hopefully start implementing these practices into my own life.

    It is easy to be swept away by the mysticism of Eastern Philosophy as a Westerner. Western religions have plenty of known flaws, and novelty is always attractive. Robert's constant mention of meditation retreats set off some alarm bells, but thankfully it seems he is level headed about the flaws of Buddhism. He claims that "most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don't meditate." He also states in a footnote that "scholars of Buddhism have long pondered the question of whether a likely, and perhaps logical, culmination of Buddhist practice is an extreme form of nihilism, a refusal to attribute value to anything." This second point was on my mind for the duration of the book. It would be very easy to use Buddhism as a noble justification for inaction. The goal is to get rid of your desires? What about the desire to help others who are needlessly suffering? There could be three, wholly legitimate Buddhist responses to this. Oh don't worry, the world around you isn't really "real." Oh don't worry, you need to focus on yourself and achieve enlightenment before you focus on anybody else, it's really not your responsibility. Oh don't worry, they were probably a bad person in a previous life and are probably being justly punished. Inaction is scary, but even more terrifying is the concept of enlightenment. A totally unfalsifiable gateway towards religious power is ripe for abuse. Power corrupts, and various sexual abuse scandals within Buddhism show that organized religion, regardless of origin, needs to be viewed with a "ungodly" amount of cynicism.

     Robert claims that "I wouldn't want to travel so far down the path toward nirvana that I was drained of fighting spirit. If full-on enlightenment means you quit making value judgements of any kind and quit pushing for change, then count me out." A Buddhist monk in this book raises a similar point, stating that "one might come away with the idea that the ultimate aim of Buddhism is to become a completely unemotional, emotionally flat, emotionally deprived automation." So, is there a difference between an enlightened Buddhist and a vegetable? In order for Buddhism to be palpable, I think it has to be treated as any other religion. Westerners pick and choose their favorite parts of Christianity to run with, I don't see why we shouldn't pick the "best" parts of Buddhism and discard the rest. Let's admit that no one has all the answers, and remain extremely skeptical of any religious "leaders." As the Buddhist saying goes, "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." We should admit that Buddhism is either a religion (who is pulling the reincarnation strings?) or nihilistic (who cares if you're enlightened if we're going to die anyway) and that there can't really be a "middle way." We should spend way more time reflecting on our actions, and try to use mindfulness to curb our worse impulses. One of the most disturbing remarks in the book came from one of Robert's religious teachers, who claimed that Robert would likely have to choose between enlightenment for himself and enlightenment for others (via writing this book). We should banish this type of thinking from the face of the earth.

3. We Should All be Feminists (P), by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


    "My own definition (of) a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better." Well Chimamanda, hard to argue with that. The fact that a majority of women feel unsafe walking alone at night, and justifiably so, means there is a massive problem. "Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change." Amen to that. Short book, but worth the reminder.

4. Legend (P), by Marie Lu


    Pretty solid young adult dystopian novel, brings me back to my Hunger Games/Divergent days. It's a bit cookie cutter, but if you're looking for a vacation read this could be it.

5. A Short History of Decay (P), by Emil Cioran


    This one took me quite a while to finish, still some great quotes but a bit slow for my taste. Emil has some hilarious insights. He says that true sacrifice for Jesus would require no resuscitation, and no followers after the fact. He claims God has to exist, otherwise it would be too absurd to think that people waste their lives getting out of bed to worship. Emil believes that indifference is the only non-insane way of life in a world that lacks meaning. I kind of like his claim that Nero burning Rome was a beautiful work of art, as it was apparently a homage to the Iliad. Everyone is useless, why haven't we all killed ourselves? Why should we do anything, given that "every action is senseless in infinity?" Eternal life either is or it isn't, so we should either spend our lives partying or praying, anything in-between is insanity. "Normally it should confront us with the one choice possible: the convent or the cabaret."

"Clothes get between us and nothingness. Look at your body in a mirror; you will realize that you are mortal; run your fingers over your ribs as though across a guitar, and you will see how close you are to the grave. It is because we are dressed that we entertain immortality; how can we die when we wear a necktie?"

"Health: decisive weapon against religion."

"Each suffering, except ours, seems to us legitimate or absurdly intelligible; otherwise, mourning would be the unique constant in the versatility of our sentiments."

6. On the Heights of Despair (P), by Emil Cioran


    "Tears do not burn expect in solitude. Those who ask to be surrounded by friends when they die do so out of fear and inability to live their final moments alone. They want to forget death at the moment of death. They lack infinite heroism. Why don't they lock their door and suffer those maddening sensations with a lucidity and a fear beyond all limits?" 

    This book punches you in the face. Probably the most depressing book ever published. "How could I still speak of beauty, and make esthetic remarks, when I am so sad, sad unto death?" Someone give this guy a hug, or some melatonin. "But I never cried, because my tears have always turned into thoughts. And my thoughts are as bitter as tears." Emil embellishes a bit in this book, but his lyrical ability and the horribly depressing content make this his most impressive work. Poetry isn't the right word, but it is brilliant regardless. "What does it matter whether our tears come from pleasure or pain?" 

    Emil is right to state that most people have nothing to say about death. Silence or terror, the only options. So what is this book about? Well for one, depression and insomnia. "On the heights of despair, nobody has the right to sleep." Not the lukewarm modern insomnia caused by the human brain's chemical inadequacy. But the hardcore, philosophical depression reserved to the unlucky few like Emil, who lack any semblance of ignorance.  I am making this hierarchal claim, not Emil. "Who is more unhappy? He who feels his own loneliness or he who feels the loneliness of the world? Impossible to tell." This book, overall, is making the case for inaction. "Why do men insist on achieving something? Would it not be better if they stood still under the sun in calm and silent immobility? What is there to accomplish? Why so much effort and ambition? Man has forgotten the meaning of silence."

    Life has no meaning, and it never will. And, Emil is not happy about it. "I am displeased with everything. If they made me God, I would immediately resign." "Why am I on this Earth... What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and esthetic ideals? It's all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone." There is no "valid justification for suffering," and once this is realized life becomes terror. If that wasn't enough, given eternity, life is irrelevant. "Meaning is conceivable only in a finite world, where one can reach something, where there are limits to stop our regression, clear points of reference, where history moves toward a goal envisioned by the theory of progress." I agree with him, it seems that eternity is the only thing that should matter. Our history is meaningless in its wake. Personally, reflecting on Buddhism after reading this is interesting. "When you come to a point where you want to live like a plant, fully unconscious, then you have come to despair of humanity."

    Short quotes:

"I can't understand why people do not commit suicide during orgasm, why they don't think survival commonplace and vulgar. Such an intense though brief quiver should reduce us to ashes in seconds. But if it does not kill us, we should kill ourselves."

"The complexity of absolute despair is infinitely greater than that of absolute joy." 

"I have no ideas, only obsessions. Anybody can have ideas. Ideas have never caused anybody's downfall."

    Massive quote:

"How is suffering rather than pleasure going to make me immortal? From a purely objective point of view, is there any significant difference between one man's agony and another's pleasure? Whether you suffer or not, nothingness will swallow you forever. There is no objective road to eternity, only a subjective feeling experienced at irregular moments in time. Nothing created by man will endure. Why this intoxication with moral illusions when there are other illusions even more beautiful? Those who speak of moral salvation in the face of eternity refer to the moral action's indefinite echo in time, its unlimited resonance. Nothing could be less true, since so-called virtuous men are actually cowards who will disappear from the world's consciousness faster than those who have wallowed in pleasure. And even so, supposing the opposite were true, would a dozen or more years really count? Any unsatisfied pleasure is a loss of life. I shall not be the one to preach against pleasure, orgy, and excess in the name of suffering. Let the mediocre speak of the consequences of pleasure: are not those of suffering even greater? Only the mediocre want to die of old age. Suffer, then, drink pleasure to its last dregs, cry or laugh, scream in despair or with joy, sing about death or love, for nothing will endure! Morality can only make life a long series of missed opportunities!"

7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (A), by J.K. Rowling


    I had previously planned to live my entire life without reading the Harry Potter books. Alas, as a man of weak will I finally caved. Great book, a bit juvenile but as expected based on reviews. Definitely triggered a lot of childhood nostalgia from my memories of the movies. 

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (A), by J.K. Rowling


    Honestly, I didn't like this one quite as much as the last. It was a bit middle-school-ish, and I don't think the plot was particularly interesting. Still, lots of childhood nostalgia and you have to admire the characters.

9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (A), by J.K. Rowling


    I really liked this one! The time turner plot is a classic, although I think it was better executed in the movie. Regardless, the actual storytelling of this book was definitely the best so far, and I'm much more excited to continue the series.

10. I'm Glad My Mom Died (A), by Jennette McCurdy

    Holy vulnerable! Wow, in this memoir Jennette really doesn't pull any punches. I would say this book's content is pretty much the exact opposite of my reading preference, but I still managed to make it through quickly. Memorable book for sure.

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