Friday, December 1, 2023

Eleventh 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: December 1 - December 31

1. Number Go Up (A), by Zeke Faux


    Interesting read, I liked it better than Going Infinite for sure. I think it humanized SBF in a way that made me really feel for him, despite Zeke's massively pessimistic view on crypto. Maybe I just relate more to cynics, but I really enjoyed the way that Zeke blatantly dunked on blockchain technology at every opportunity. Zeke portrays the cryptocurrency space as way more toxic, fraudulent, and hilarious than I remember, and his quick jabs at the weird and eccentric hustlers at places like Tether made this an entertaining read. Still, I think his bias went too far, to the point of being uninformed. He repeats over and over again that this technology is untraceable, which is laughably far from the truth especially in 2023. He makes a good point when he digs into how completely the promise of crypto has failed the unbanked, poverty-stricken people of the world, but I think he reads too much into how crypto has paved a path for evil. Even in a crypto-less world, there are still going to be compounds where individuals are tricked into slave labor and forced to scam others. Maybe crypto makes scamming marginally easier, but the dark world of blackmail and forced labor would thrive regardless.

    Zeke is a good journalist. He presents himself as the reasonable man in a world full of weirdos, which at some level he is (especially in the midst of a Bitcoin conference). But I think he plays this hand too much, to the point where it harms the reading experience. Still worth the read, as long as you don't take Zeke as seriously as he takes himself.

2. The Master and Margarita (A), by Mikhail Bulgakov


    Thoroughly entertaining book. I really enjoyed exploring Mikhail's hilarious and thought-provoking Russian world of devils and chaos. There was a lot going on and many characters, from Pontius Pilate, to Margarita the witch, to Satan, and it was a bit hard for me to keep track of it all. I probably missed some satirical references and Russian-specific humor, but overall enjoyed the book a lot.

3. The Sunlit Man (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    As I say every time, the man does not miss. Great characters, great worldbuilding, fantastic story. Just another great addition to the cosmere.

4. Sapiens (A), by Yuval Noah Harari


    I tried reading this book a few times and finally just crushed the audiobook during one of my long weekend runs. This was a pretty solid book, and I was pleasantly surprised by Yuval's very objective, scientific, and nihilistic outlook on humanity. The lens he uses to look at the world is extremely interesting, and I'm really glad to have read the book. Some of his arguments are purposefully biased, but I don't think that detracts too much from the book. Yuval is trying to be thought-provoking, and in that he succeeds.

5. Existentialism is a Humanism (P), by Jean-Paul Satre


    This was certainly interesting. Jean-Paul is an existentialist. He believes that there is no God, and thus "everything is permissible." He believes this makes humans free, as we are no bound by some great "causality" that determines our lives, and our circumstances cannot be blamed for our lives as a result. So, stop hiding behind your excuses, and write that book. Because history and the world will remember that regardless of your background, you not doing something just results in not doing something. A life where you don't take advantage of this existential freedom is one of wasted potential.
   "For existentialists there is no love other than the deeds of love; no potential for love other than that which is manifested in loving. There is no genius other than hat which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust resides in the totality of his works; the genius of Racine is found in the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the ability to write yet another tragedy when that's precisely what he did not do? In life, a man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing."

    I don't really agree with Jean-Paul in a lot of ways. I feel like the beauty of a nihilistic outlook is really only displayed in the works of Emil Cioran, and everyone else (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Satre) kind of takes a wimpy way out. There is something badass about saying that nothing matters and everything is permissible, and then refusing to try to draw some form of "meaningful" conclusion about it. Regardless, when reading this I didn't really understand Jean-Paul's take on life and freedom. This example is not his argument, but I don't like when philosophers say things like "only once we recognize that there are no rules can we truly be free." Either everything is predetermined and humans have no agency, or not. I don't really see an in-between, and I don't think being "clued-in" to some philosophical ideas changes your objective ability to navigate life in a now "meaningful" way. I wish these writings went a bit deeper, but I at least have an idea of how Jean-Paul thinks. And I just love existential philosophy, so I'll take all that I can get.

6. The Devil Finds Work (A), by James Baldwin


    James is an incredible writer, and there are certainly flashes of brilliance in this book. However, the essays are for the most part commenting on books and movies that I have not seen, and thus I am quite sure I missed the context of a lot of them. Probably one of James's least accessible works.

7. Parkinson's Law (P), by Cyril Parkinson


    Parkinson's law is the observation that the allotted time given to a task is precisely the time it takes to complete the task. This mostly relates to government bureaucracy, as officials want subordinates who are incompetent (and thus not a threat), and officials enjoy making work for other officials. This book is a satire, a comedic journey through a variety of topics such as government committees, retirement, and cocktail parties. Cyril uses overly complex mathematical equations to state how to navigate the bizarre world we live in, and his dry humor and wit makes for an entertaining read. The book is pretty slow at points, but if you are at a dead-end job or liked Bullshit Jobs, this is a decent read.

“The defect in the intelligence test is that high marks are gained by those who subsequently prove to be practically illiterate.”

8. Less Than Zero (P), by Bret Easton Ellis


    The Los Angeles counterpart to the New York of Bright Lights, Big City. Full of empty, vapid, morally deficient characters who don't do a whole lot. The book is a slow-moving chronicle of rich eighteen year-olds who turn to drugs, sex, and kidnapping and torture, not to feel something, but rather because their existence is meaningless and so is life. Warning: this book has some very, very messed up scenes. The worst I have read. But I think they added to the theme. This book isn't perfect, but it is very hard to put down and very thought provoking.

    The book opens with the line "people are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles." Towards the end of the book, the narrator says: 

"Before I left, a woman had her throat slit and was thrown from a moving car in Venice; a series of fires raged out of control in Chatsworth, the work of an arsonist; a man in Encino killed his wife and two children. Four teenagers, none of whom I knew, died in a car accident on Pacific Coast Highway. Muriel was readmitted to Cedars-Sinai. A guy, nicknamed Conan, killed himself at a fraternity party in U.C.L.A."

    This theme of the book is shown in the contrast between these statements. The world is full of horrible things: violence, rape, and death. Life is scary, and terrifying events surround us at all times. Despite all the tragedy and terror that permeate the lives of others, we choose to ignore most of it in order to function. Thus, what really scares most people is something small and stupid like merging onto a highway. The narrator says that "it's less painful if I don't care." He lives a meaningless life of total apathy and cowardice, just like all the other characters. 

    I saw this book as a pretty interesting criticism of LA culture. One character is told "you're a beautiful boy and that's all that matters," and then later, the narrator is told "you're a beautiful boy, Clay, but that's about it." The characters are all materialistic and empty, and they just disappear into whatever hedonistic desires they fancy at any moment. I'm sort of really into these 1980's novels tied to a particular city. They resonate with me for some reason, so I'm going to look for more.

9. Post Office (P), by Charles Bukowski


    Sort of an interesting read, I can't tell if  I liked it or not. The main character is the author's alter ego, Hank. The story is a bit motivating, as I was disgusted by Hank and his life. Hank's meaningless job is displayed as especially frustrating. The narrator says: "well, as the boys said, you had to work somewhere. So they accepted what there was. This was the wisdom of the slave." Part of the triumph of the book is that Hank breaks out of the cycle, finally quitting his monotone job where he wasted his life. Overall, I have pretty mixed emotions. I may read a few more of Charles's books to fully form an opinion.

10. Ethan Frome (P), by Edith Wharton


    Sort of a hilarious way to end my reading year. This book is considered a classic, but it is also widely hated. The main character is an idiot, a sort of weak, cowardly individual who is in love with his wife's cousin. The book's ending is pretty nonsensical and certainly not my favorite, but I overall had a soft spot for the story. It's good, not great, and definitely a conversation starter. 

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