Friday, May 12, 2023

Fifth 10 Books I Read in 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.

Old Testament:

    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.

New Testament:

    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 " 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.

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