Thursday, April 20, 2023

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: April 19 - May 10

1. The Coddling of the American Mind (A), by Jonathan Haidt


    I don't think that this was a good book. The ideas are somewhat solid: coddling children doesn't prepare them for real life, college campuses are no longer places of free and fair debate, woke culture can sometimes be legitimately bad. However, I didn't like the execution. The book was fairly boring and massively anecdotal. The leaps in logic were pretty absurd. For some chapters, it is like the author simply had an idea (hey, children don't play outside as much as they used to) and determined that this revelation somehow explains current society. Also, this book is pretty much just about universities being regressively leftist and stifling free speech out of cowardice. I feel like it should have stuck to the "coddling of the American university" stuff, which it did well, and avoided trying to make the actions of a few thousand upper class students speak for the thoughts and beliefs of four hundred million American people. 

    Tim Urban did it better. "What's Our Problem" is legitimately better in every way, and I wonder if the existence of that book now makes this one irrelevant. Also, I am not convinced by this idea that the world is more closed minded and hostile now. Every generation says that the newest generation is full of spoiled brats who can't think for themselves and are poisoned by the newest technology. Every generation says that "we used to all get along, not sure what happened to all of you." Political parties never fought fair, and were never not massively hypocritical. It will be really difficult for Jonathan to avoid the comparison to "Old Man Yells at Cloud," and rightfully so.

2. Between the World and Me (A), by Ta-Nehisi Coates


    Masterful. I am pretty astounded at Ta-Nehisi's writing ability. Even offhand remarks come off as supremely powerful: "every girl I've ever loved was a bridge to somewhere else." His line "the same hands that drew red lines around the life of Prince Jones drew red lines around the ghetto" is such an awesome consolidation of ideas that I stopped the audiobook to think. I wish he said "white lines" when referring to Prince but the point still stands. This book was just really, really good. It is awesome to get a unique perspective in such a format.

3. Fooled by Randomness (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    I would consider myself both a Nassim lover and a Nassim hater. I think he is the most bombastic, annoying, arrogant, predictable writer that I have come across. At least, that covers 80% of the material he puts out. However, and what is most annoying, the other 20% of his content (spread very unevenly through his books) is legitimately brilliant. This is immensely frustrating, but I wonder  if that glimpse of brilliance can only come from such an unusual character. Every book that goes by I get more used to his style and better at ignoring the 80%. This is my favorite book by him so far. Basically, he makes the claim that everything (the stock market, our lives, historical events) is far more random than we think. Predicting anything with certainty is basically useless, especially predicting events in the past (hindsight bias and survivorship bias are incredibly persuasive). This may not sound revolutionary, but it is actually incredibly unique. I know very few people who truly view events through this lens. Regardless, believing in a straight, logical line of cause and effect is bound to cause much confusion and trauma over your lifespan.

4. Tress of the Emerald Sea (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    For every Sanderson novel I may just keep commenting: "the man does not miss." Such a great, beautiful, whimsical read. It is insane that he can pump out a fantasy tale better and more unique than "Stardust" in only a couple of months. The man could hardly be more talented.

5. The Fall (A), by Albert Camus


    As a massive Emil Cioran fan I walked into this book heavily biased. Emil mentioned that Camus was pompous and arrogant, despite not being particularly talented. So, I was not expecting much. Then I realized that most existential philosophy is pretty similar and that I massively enjoy every bit of it. This is one I'd like to go through again in a few years, as some of the quotes were pretty powerful. When the narrator is discussing women, he says "I loved them, according to the hallowed expression which amounts to saying that I never loved any of them." Simple stuff like this made the book quite great. I'll probably read another book of his this year as a result.

6. The Bed of Procrustes (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    This collection of aphorisms seems like some sort of cash grab (apparently Nassim got a $4 million dollar advance in order to write this book). It was pretty short and nothing was super novel. The same tired Nassim themes (Harvard people = dumb, MBA people = dumb, economists = should be killed in the streets, deadlifting = super cool, fat greasy New Jersey people who mumble their words = even cooler) made up 90% of the content. His general philosophy is a bit condensed here "both markets and models are extremely stupid," so I guess someone might get value out of this as an introduction. If you are familiar with his work I would recommend skipping.

7. Train Dreams (A), by Denis Johnson


    I read Tress of Emerald Sea in basically a day. Given that it was ~500 pages, I wondered if I could dedicate similar effort to reading five ~100 page books on a random Thursday. This ended up being the second, a pretty short novella detailing a man in the 1900's who lives near a railway line and loses his wife and daughter in a wildfire. I couldn't really get into this book and I found the ending pretty empty. It reminded me of  "Steppenwolf" but without the cool philosophical parts.

8. Letters to a Young Poet (A), by Rainer Maria Rilke


    This was a pretty darn good read. I am going to say probably the most artistically beautiful and profound book I have read in a while, and it was less than 100 pages (making it even more beautiful). I really enjoy these short, romantically written novels ("Art and Fear" comes to mind). This is another that I will probably re-read.

9. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (P), by Carlo M. Cipolla


    Originally a pamphlet sent around to friends, this short book was pretty comical. Carlo gives five separate laws: we underestimate the number of stupid people, being stupid is independent of any other trait, stupid people are defined as those who damage other members of society as well as themselves (for no logical reason), non-stupid people underestimate how damaging stupid people can be, and "the stupid person is the most dangerous type of person." Carlo also uses a basic graph to demonstrate the types of people (the x axis is how much you harm/benefit yourself, the y axis is how much you harm/benefit others). This whole thing is very tongue-in-check and I would advise you not to take it seriously. I thought it was worth the read.

10. The Call of Cthulhu (P), by H.P. Lovecraft


    Rounding off my five-short-books-in-a-day day, I decided to end with a Lovecraft story. I enjoyed this for sure, probably about equally to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." There has been enough praise for Lovecraft's work over the past hundred years, so I won't waste more time explaining how good he is at writing horror. All I'll say is I am thoroughly creeped out by everything I have read of his. "Was I tottering on the brink of cosmic horrors beyond man's power to bear?" The coolest thing about his work is the connection to cosmic, all-powerful gods of terror. This lore gives the reader a unique feeling of powerlessness they fail to experience elsewhere.

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