A Book Review for 2022

This is the second installment of the Baylen Book Review, a literary journal Time Magazine called “one of the most important achievements of the modern age” and Newsweek referred to as “pure, unadulterated genius.” The concept is simple- I read, then I write. I read with an open mind, and I write my honest opinions without pretense or slant. I believe there is value in the unscholarly approach. I am no philosopher, nor am I a bioethicist, and I’m certainly not an Irish historian. For others like me that are enthralled by the sheer abundance of topics to learn and want to eat up as much of it as they can, welcome. I hope I can provide some great suggestions and some thought-provoking concepts before the first page is turned.

Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

A dystopian novel that is frequently compared to 1984, which is a terrible shame, because it stands on its own merit. Huxley invents a future that, while terrifying and distinctly dystopian, contains enough elements of “progress” to provide the antagonists with plausible deniability and the reader to question the nature of the world in which they’re engrossed. As time passed, capitalism and socialism combined in a techno-

Though written in 1931, Brave New World remains eerily familiar today. A utopia where everyone is happy, everyone knows their place, and “everyone belongs to everyone else”. Birth has long since become a taboo subject, with all new children being derived from an assembly line and spending the first part of their lives being conditioned to make them best-suited for their future pre-ordained employments. If there are any issues, soma is readily available to make citizens forget all about their problems temporarily. When they come back from their trip, they can hardly remember they had any problems at all. Sex is free- relationships are practically non-existent, and all manner of sexual modesty has long-since been cast to the wayside. It is, they claim, paradise.

This book contains interesting critiques of both capitalism and socialism. Religion has basically been outlawed and replaced with the consumer god, Henry Ford, who falls right into place replacing longstanding religious icons- the Fordian Science Monitor newspaper, time as represented by Before Ford and After Ford, and so on. Consumer goods are plentiful, filling in the day with enough pleasure to allow someone no time to think of anything else. If there is a bad emotion, there is also likely a product for that.

Socialism is similarly critiqued. Everyone is equal in this society, provided with a role that best suits their unique characteristics and complements their likes and dislikes. This is even true for their pastime preferences; certain classes are taught to perceive certain things as enjoyable, while others are taught to dislike those same things. Brave New World picks apart the inherent impossibility of equality within a socialist system. Under no circumstance would such a system exist without unique social strati, some which are clearly more favorable than others. 

The social critic Neil Postman explains the ever-growing importance of Brave New World the best. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose- well, you didn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes- make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing... that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.

Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Another foray into Russian philosophy that I am poorly equipped to understand. Notes From Underground is comprised of two parts, the first a depraved antihero’s journal and beliefs, and the second a set of experiences the narrator has. The first section paints a picture of a broken man, obsessive over his own shortcomings and driven mad by perceived inequalities, and the second shows the consequences of living such a life.

The most striking (and, conveniently, easy to grasp) point from Notes From Underground is a rejection of determinism. The narrator argues, quite convincingly, that determinism implies rationality, and human beings cannot be relied upon to act in a rational manner ad infinitum. This point is reinforced through a hypothetical utopia without issue, where out of sheer boredom humanity would rebel just for the sake of rebellion. To exist as an individual is, at least partially, to act irrationally. During the second part of the novel, Underground Man explains to a hopeful prostitute the true nature of her position and the extreme difficulty, if not sheer impossibility, of escaping her position given the social constraints she was within.

The Underground Man was an antihero- not one to emulate and not even remotely likeable, but with ideas that are compelling nonetheless. He thought himself greater than all of his peers without merit, and believed himself to be constantly belittled by any provocation. While some of his beliefs may have been true, he was a prison to them, incapable of advancing in any social structure with the belief that everything was meaningless and effort was for nothing. His only solace was his perceived higher intellect.

For someone interested in a rebuttal to nihilism, this is a great place to start. As prior reading, Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? would be helpful as it is directly referenced repeatedly and Notes From Underground is at least partially a response to that book. It is not required to understand Notes From Underground, but would provide some nice context.

Shower him will all earthly blessings, plunge him so deep into happiness that nothing is visible but the bubbles rising to the surface of his happiness, as if it were water; give him such economic prosperity that he will have nothing left to do but sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the continuance of world history- and he, I mean man, even then, out of mere ingratitude, out of sheer devilment, will commit some abomination.

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

As one would expect from Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent example of science fiction with a well-deserved spot in our collective literary consciousness. Yet, miraculously, I had somehow managed to go over 25 years without ever reading this, an irony that did not go unacknowledged as I discovered this gem of American literature.

Fahrenheit 451 is named after the temperature at which books spontaneously combust. In this bizarre alternate reality, firemen are tasked with hunting down books and burning them, helping to censor the criminal knowledge that they contain. Over the course of the book, the protagonist grows disillusioned by his profession and resolves to protect literature from meeting the fate he had previously subjected it to.

Despite being hellishly dystopian, the world Bradbury creates is eerily reminiscent to today. The severe technology addiction that lobotomizes most of the characters, the drug dependence and regularity of attempted suicide, the dissolution of open speech in an increasingly censored world- while we are nowhere near this today, one can be forgiven for noticing some parallels. Bradbury himself even pointed this connection out later in life, declaring in 1994 that political correctness was among our greatest modern existential threats. He likened it to “thought control and freedom of speech control”. To Bradbury, ideas were to be openly shared- any threat to that must be stopped immediately. Taking inspiration from the ideological repression of the Soviet Union along with the book burnings of the Nazis, it is no surprise Bradbury viewed this as such a serious threat.

Painting a chillingly familiar landscape, Bradbury creates a potential future that we should all strive to avoid. The character arc is similar to that of Brave New World, albeit with a more hopeful ending. Both are literally classics that, like a fine wine, have only grown better with age.

But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose- well, you didn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes- make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing... that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.

The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho

Damn, now this was a powerful read. Another book that I should have made time for in my youth, The Alchemist presents the same brilliance that Paulo Coelho showcases in two of my other favorite books, Veronika Decides to Die and By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. Basically, everything this man touches turns into gold.

The Alchemist is a tale of self-exploration and self-discovery, chronicling the journey of a young shepherd as his embarks on an epic quest to discover his destiny. Through his travels he is met with love, hate, fear, joy, friendship, betrayal- a depth of human experience brought to life by the pen of one of the greatest living novelists. The protagonist embarks on a journey to find himself, aided by the soul of the world around him. As Coelho puts it, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Perhaps the tremendous success of The Alchemist that has seen it rise to the ranks of the world’s best-selling novels lies in the universality of it’s theme. We all have our lives, and we all have our dreams, and for very few of us are those two the same. We all feel an urge to change our base mode of existence to one that better matches our dreams, but for one reason or another- a sense of responsibility, a fear of the unknown- we fail to act. We ignore the signs that the universe gives us, and resign ourselves to our lives.

The Alchemist is a call to arms for the dreamers of the world in a very literal, personal way. The author, a largely nameless wannabe with no successful writings in his fledgling career, embarked on his own journey of self-discovery and universal intention that ultimately culminated in the publishing of The Alchemist- a small printing of 900 copies that did not get renewed for reprint. The Alchemist feels so intensely personal because it was intensely personal, expertly capturing the yearning, desperation, and hope of a young author trying to make a name for himself. No matter how old, no matter how successful, the Alchemist is a tremendously valuable asset to all of those with the desire to follow their dreams. 

We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it's our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.


by Kurt Vonnegut

Weaving science fiction elements into his semi-autobiographical account of a tragedy he was a party to, Vonnegut manages to appropriately convey the impossible nature of describing a war crime. Such unimaginable horrors escape worthy description, and it is this thought that permeates throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. Much like The Things They Carried, this book does not attempt to assign moral judgments or reason to war. It is simply something that exists and happens and cannot be fully explained. Certain events in war- such as the firebombing of Dresden- transcend any real description. The horrors must be seen to be believed, and even then exist in a separate reality for the viewer.

This book was masterfully written, a 20 year introspective by Vonnegut trying to find the words to adequately convey a human tragedy of such magnitude. What he got write in terms of storytelling and symbolism he occasionally got wrong in terms of truthfulness. Two of the most glaring issues with Slaughterhouse-Five involve the credibility of stated claims. At one point he purports that 135,000 people died during the firebombing, which is a gross overstatement from the true number of around 25,000. Similarly, Vonnegut claims that more people died during the Dresden bombings than during the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is also a complete lie.

Vonnegut’s argument for these errors was to claim that there is no difference between the numbers in terms of moral significance of the action. While this is somewhat valid, it brings up a critical fault of postmodernism in what is an otherwise great (and arguably first) postmodernist work- if everything is relative and objective truth does not exist, then there is no point on which to anchor and no stories have any objective meaning. This narrative crumbles, and the Tower of Babel collapses as the confounding of our language becomes complete. For a narrative to carry meaning, it must remain chained to the core facts on which it is based. If those too are subjective, then so is the morality of the events.

But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it's up to you now to know with which ear you'll listen.

In the Garden of Beasts

by Erik Larson

A very well-researched book. Unfortunately, this amount of research may have been part of it’s undoing. Though there are some very interesting tidbits buried within and the book overall provides a fantastic window into the cultural and social landscapes during the rise of the Nazis, the sheer amount of notes on mundane chance meetings regularly venture into the realm of redundancy. Do I care about the setting, the mood, the dialogue, the implications? Yes! But at times such care in researching does seem unnecessary when the topic of the research carries little implication with the overarching story that is unfolding.

In the Garden of Beasts is a nonfiction narrative of the American Ambassador to Germany following the rise of the Nazi party. Ambassador William Dodd, his wife, and his skanky daughter spent four years working, living, and skanking around Berlin, respectively. Over the course of their stay they witnessed the rejuvenation of a shattered republic, and all the bad that could come of that. 

Where this narrative shines is in casting a new light over the origins of the Nazi party. Most European governments and the United States government did not take the movement particularly seriously, thinking that it would peter out quickly, likely after an assassination of Hitler. The Nazis would be otherthrown, and reason would prevail. Or, alternatively, Hitler would be reigned in and would fall into the role of a much more stable leader. Throughout the world only a select few were taking the threat seriously, and even fewer worried about the Jews that were being attacked and scapegoated with increasing fervor.

All in all, In the Garden of Beasts was a well-worthy read that could have benefited from some further editing. For readers interested in learning the origins of the Nazi party and how the social and economic climate of the day allowed for the growth of the Nazis, this is a must-read. 

"I have Hindenburg's confidence" Papen once crowed. "Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he'll squeak." It was possible the greatest miscalculation of the twentieth century. As historian John Wheeler-Bennett put it, "Not until they had riveted the fetters upon their own wrists did they realize who indeed was captive and who captor."

Meditation for Beginners

by Jack Kornfield

The book was good, not great. Perhaps my expectations were too high based on the glowing recommendations I had heard previously, or my first impression was shot from the “Great for Kindle” lie that Amazon promoted. In either case, this book just didn’t quite do it for me and felt like too much of an introduction to have any real consequence for even the most casual student of meditation.

Let’s get the most important part out of the way first. This is not just a book, it is a book and guided meditation audiotape. If you buy the Kindle version of this book (which Amazon promotes as an excellent choice) you will not have access to the audiobook, and will open the e-book to a statement letting you know your experience is incomplete without the audiobook. Am I irrationally upset about this? Yeah, kind of. But come on, this is such an easy error to correct. It could be included with the purchase as an mp3 file, uploaded to YouTube, or made available on the book’s website as a free file. If one needs the other, then there isn’t any reason to not release the audio portion separately.

Okay, rant over. Though that experience left a bad taste in my mouth, I tried to approach the remainder of the book with an open mind. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t seem to have any insights that I hadn’t previously gleamed from a handful of meditation and mindfulness podcasts. The title was very much a true statement; it was meditation for BEGINNERS, and anyone that had done any level of exploration into meditation beyond hearing of the word would likely find the book too elementary for them.

Perhaps the best use of the book is intention setting. The more you read about meditation and the main meditation styles, the easier it is to fall into the habit of meditating regularly and assigning spaces and times for meditation. In this regard, the book succeeds. In most others, it fails.

So it is not that we try and minimize, or get rid of, or ignore, or run away from pain, because then you will have to spend half of your life running away. It is more useful to learn how to relate to all of it- the pleasure and the pain- with compassion, tenderness, mercy, and understanding.

The Catcher in the Rye

by J.D. Salinger

The fact that I am a mid 20’s-something reading a book clearly intended for adolescents is not lost on me. Having not read this in my youth I decided to finally rectify this wrong (much like I did for The Alchemist), with the understanding that some of the deeper meaning I would’ve gotten will not be as tangible as it once would’ve been. To better prepare myself for the experience, mentally and physically, I subsisted on a diet of pizza and cookies while listening to pop punk and screamo in the days leading up to cracking the book open. For good measure, I called my parents and screamed at them about how they didn’t understand me, then asked them to let me borrow twenty dollars. Finally, I was ready to begin.

The Catcher in the Rye follows Haulden Caulfield, an emotionally troubled late teenager, as he struggles to navigate life after the passing of his brother. He drifts around from place to place, thoughtful and piercing, but void of direction or purpose. In his journey he encounters friends, foes, mentors, family, and certain characters that blur those lines. Depressed and pessimistic, he holds oversimplified views of basically everyone he encounters, summing them up in a handful of not-so-flattering words. Whether he ever acknowledges the trauma he carries or the weight of living such a cynical existence is just one of the questions Salinger leaves us to ponder.

Growing up is hard. Whether you are in the heart of the storm or viewing it from the rearview mirror, coming of age is a uniquely human experience that transcends time. I was surprised how much of the book still resonated with me, and certain scenes that brought back vivid memories of my own adolescence. The confusion, the anger, the shame, the frustration. J.D. Salinger created a timeless masterpiece that can be enjoyed by all ages, though it is particularly poignant for younger readers still trying to find themselves. For this geriatric soul on the cusp of his 30’s, the meaning was not lost- but was only a fraction of what it would have been.

Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them- if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

The Four Agreements

by Don Miguel Ruiz

A fine book with some deep takeaways overshadowed by poor writing. The Four Agreements tells the secrets of the Toltecs, a Mesoamerican civilization that ruled central Mexico around 1000AD. Basically, according to Don Miguel Ruiz (or the Toltecs), our concept of reality is based on conceptions, or agreements, that are not true. These false agreements are ideas we internalized at a young age, mostly passed down from societal structures and family teaching. Though untrue, we take these agreements as gospel and base our entire lives around them.

The secret to living a good life is to separate ourselves from these false agreements and replace them with agreements that are more conducive to a healthy, fulfilled life. These positive 4 core agreements are be impeccable with your word, take nothing personallydon’t make assumptions, and always do your best. To live a personal version of heaven, one must denounce all other agreements they have made and restructure their lives around these 4 agreements.

The Four Agreements is the Mesoamerican version of cognitive behavioral therapy, guiding readers through identifying the false beliefs they currently hold and providing a framework for establishing the new, more fulfilling beliefs. It also provides (frequently over the top) comparison pieces of life with false agreements compared to life after one accepts the four agreements. The phrase that comes to mind as I think about this book is “laying it on thick”. After the first introductory chapter where such grandiose explanations are acceptable, Ruiz never lets up on his rhetoric. Everything is the best heaven or the worst hell. Nothing, no matter how simple, can be stated without six sentences explaining the obvious implications of the preceding statement.

Take away every unnecessary sentence and paragraph reiterating the line before it, and this becomes a fantastic book. The sheer redundancy kills it for me, especially with the fantastical overreaches. “You will become a god.” “This is how to achieve immortality.” “This transforms your hell into heaven.” The first few times were forgivable as creative license to drive home important points, but then they just happened again… and again… and again. It quickly became corny and made the book hard to take seriously. I had to struggle through the last two chapters despite generally enjoying the book for the main content.

You can have many great ideas in your head, but what makes the difference is the action. Without action upon an idea, there wil be no manifestation, no results, and no reward.

Catch 22

by Joseph Heller

A masterpiece of American war fiction. Catch 22 perfectly captures the absurdity of war and most American conventions in a lengthy 42 chapter novel that is not a page too long. Jumping from funny to sad and from serious to jovial, Heller weaves dozens of concurrent narratives across chapters, most stretching the majority of the book without reaching a conclusion. As one thread would be started, it would disappear and be replaced, only to reappear suddenly ninety pages later.

The independent stories in Catch 22 largely focused around paradoxes, such as the title character trying to finish his required number of missions only for the number to be raised again, or an officer being put through a military trial where the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney are all the same person. Joseph Heller coined the phrase ‘catch 22’ for this novel, meaning an unsolvable paradox that is valid despite being completely illogical. Examples of these paradoxes occur throughout the book in increasingly hilarious settings.

No narrative thread is random, but brought up and dropped exactly where it needs to be to begin another. This writing style takes a few chapters to pick up, especially as events and people are referenced that have yet to be introduced, but soon feels natural and is accepted by the reader as part of the experience. Stories referenced in chapter one are explained in chapter 12, picked back up in chapter 26, and finally reach a conclusion in chapter 38. The personality and depth given to the characters allows the reader to easily juggle such a large cast list without issue.

This book is an incredibly fun, deeply upsetting read. The critiques of capitalism and the American military are poignant. There are no real heroes, despite their being a protagonist- every character is either a villain or a victim. In this way, it is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse Five. The characters exist to weave a narrative that does not care for them, in a world that is not fair to them. The powerful fight to secure greater power and secure the power they have, while the weak fight to simply stay alive. The margins between ally and enemy blur as motives become understood and pretenses of a “good soldier” are erased.

This should be required reading for undergraduate college curriculums or advanced studies high school curriculums, and it is criminal that it rarely is. At least it is no longer banned.

It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

The Ends of the World

by Peter Brannen

Brannen’s writing is accessible yet in-depth, scholarly yet entertaining, authoritative yet acknowledges that there is still so much we don’t know. From my starting point with almost no knowledge of basic geology or paleontology, I came to somewhat understand the factors of each of the mass extinctions as well as the species that disappeared during them. Updating this in June of 2023, about a year and a half since I read this book, I still remember each of the extinctions and regularly rant about them to unsuspecting, and largely unwilling, acquaintances.

While ostensibly a descriptive book about the factors that led to the previous mass extinctions, Brannen does a great job of making it topical- many of the past indicators of calamity we are seeing in the present. Continuously hinting at the Holocene extinction but never going too in-depth about it, Brannen provides an excellent case to climate skeptics about just how screwed we currently are and exactly why immediate change is needed. Interested in the Holocene mass extinction, I later chose to read The Sixth Extinction which focuses on it- while not my favorite book, it was a great introduction to the mortal consequences to face us should we not seek immediate corrective action.

The only fault I found with the book is that, despite introducing alternative theories to some mass extinctions, Brannen floats by the Pleistocene mass extinction without mention of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. This was a very odd omission in a text that otherwise was overwhelmingly thorough, finding pleasure in picking apart the historical propensity within geologic and paleontological scientific circles to refuse the possibility of any new ideas, even when they are gaining traction and only lack the perception as the established narrative. Regardless, this healthy skepticism he otherwise showcases throughout The Ends of the World sparked my interest in geology and paleontology, leading to quite a few more similar books being read for my 2023 book review.

We take for granted the shape of our world and the position of the continents— the familiar geography that seems as eternal as the order of the planets. But this arrangement is temporary: it isn't how the planet has been and it isn't how it will be.

Resurrection Science

by M.R. O'Connor

Perhaps I assumed too much from the title and a short summary, but my expectations of this book were largely incorrect. While I assumed a book called Resurrection Science would focus predominantly on the science of reintroducing extant species, it instead dealt primarily with the ethics around that field. What I was expecting? Not in the slightest. Compelling all the same? Absolutely.

According to M.R. O’Connor, conservation dialogue is often missing input from key stakeholders. The questions raised when considering whether a species can(or should) be saved often disregard the needs of the local populace, as well as downstream ecological effects of different actions. Ethical conservation requires input and buy-in from all key stakeholders, not just those with deep enough pockets to make the change happen. For many communities, especially those outside of the USA, environmental protection comes at a cost of critical infrastructure or economic viability. Protecting the natural world is important, but it must be done with tact and consideration.

In addition to the ethical considerations surrounding the people affected by conservation efforts, Resurrection Science discusses the philosophy of place and the ethics surrounding species reintroduction. This idea originates from Greek philosophy, in a famous thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus. The Ship of Theseus asks whether something that has had all of it’s original pieces replaced remains the same, or if it is something entirely different. For conservation ethics, this would be the dilemma of species reintroduction- can a species that one roamed an environment be introduced to that environment, or is the species, and the environment, both different? 

When the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

About A Mountain

by John D'Agata

An interesting subject that did not receive the full attention it deserved. What happened (or almost happened) at Yucca Mountain was a monumental failure of our collective minds to solve complex problems spanning millennia. The human mind, it turns out, isn’t exactly equipped to handle such problems. While safely storing nuclear waste for over a million years- about 200 times longer than civilization has existed- is a nearly impossible task, writing a book chronicling governmental and intellectual shortcomings should be a more manageable feat.

While D’Agata succeeds in providing a wider narrative on communication and contradiction, he fails in providing adequate context about Yucca Mountain or the factors at play in choosing it as a nuclear dumping ground. Coupled with D’Agata’s own admission that he lied throughout the book in a lame, “art requires taking creative liberties to drive your points home” excuse, this essay is overall a swing and a miss in what I wish was a home run.

It’s crazy (and frankly deeply troubling) that this kind of dishonesty in literary non-fiction can go unpunished. D’agata’s book was a success, and he faced little pushback for his blatant lies. His fact-checker deserves credit for calling him out on his falsehoods.

Defending his writing style, D’agata argues, “you feel misled by my essay. I accept that. You feel that it’s inappropriate for me to have done this. While I feel that it’s a necessary part of my job to do this. By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art—a truer experience for the reader—than if I stuck to the facts.”

I am of the belief that the truth is important, evermore so as writers like D’agata rise to prominence. If I am unsure which parts of a work are true, which are fabricated somewhat, and which are downright false, how am I to believe any part of it? No, the whole work must be disregarded and the author’s status lowered. D’agata is still held in high acclaim, and I have no idea how or why.

... If I point to something seeming like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there. Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information. Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what's called knowledge.

Doors of Perception

by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley, philosopher and author of Brave New World, chronicles his experiences with altered states of consciousness while under the influence of mescaline. At a minimum, that is what this book was. The implications of his writings, however, took on an entirely new life. 

What are psychedelics? This is a question that can be answered in a myriad of ways. They are chemical compositions that elicit certain physiological changes in the body- but the emotion, the feeling, that is significantly harder to describe and equally difficult to record in any meaningful way. What Aldous Huxley succeeded in was, for the time, groundbreaking.

Though impactful, Huxley did not describe his experience as revolutionary. It was meaningful, impactful, completely removed from anything that he had ever experienced through normal everyday experience- a journey through the doors of perception- but he did not experience the same visions that others had reported from LSD.

Reading this book in the modern age makes it difficult to understand the initial importance and impact. Coming from a time when psychedelic use was nascent, Doors of Perception must have been extraordinary for the contemporary reader. I, however, was a bit less intrigued, and rightfully so- little about the experience was new to me, as I have heard similar recollections before.

What did strike me about the work was Huxley’s philosophical view on states of enhanced perception and how such experiences are required to gain a more complete view of our world. Essentially, we live with horse blinders on. Our field of perception is limited to only take in information that helps to keep us alive, while blocking out the unneeded data. The problem is, we are (thankfully) spending minimal time getting chased by lions. Though the limiting of our perception was a evolutionary advantage, it becomes a detriment in the modern world.

The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A masterpiece of modern Russian fiction. I aimed to read the Gulag Archipelago, but thought this would be a good precursor- I was not disappointed.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich follows the title character (or Shukhov, as he’s often referred to) as he navigates life in a soviet work camp. Though the book is essentially providing a best-case scenario of a day in a ‘special’ camp, the balance between life and death rests on a razor’s edge. Every decision must be calculated, and every movement intentional. By the time we meet Shukhov, he has been molded by camp life and is acutely aware what is required to survive it- though that still may not be enough.

To me, the most interesting elements of this book were the different behaviors of the prisoners and the social strati that existed among them. Some men were proud and stoic, finding ways to survive such harsh conditions with dignity. Others lost all sense of dignity, licking food scraps and scrounging for discarded cigarette butts. One could hardly blame a man for falling to such depths of depravity given the circumstances- though according to Shukhov, the prisons that acted in such a manner rarely lasted long.

It became clear quite early that not all prisoners were created equal. Family wealth and education seemed to play an important role in which prisoners would be assigned to what advantageous positions, some of which not even requiring hard labor. While most toiled in the below-freezing tundra, others lounged in offices enjoying cushy administrative roles. While they were still certainly prisoners, their positions could not be confused with those of a lower caste.

Being an American, I am familiar with good old fashioned corruption, though I was a bit surprised at the extent to which it appeared in the soviet camps. Upon further reflection, though, it makes perfect sense- the guards often had to endure terrible conditions as well, and the administrative prisoners had no real incentive to not abuse the privileges of their posts. ‘Taxes’ had to be paid for any goods sent to camp prisoners, usually in the form of a percentage of the goods. After having passed through multiple hands, a prisoner would be lucky to have a third of their prize remaining. The same could be said about the food in the mess hall. Though the per-person rations were fixed and enough food was provided for all prisoners to have their ration, it rarely worked out that way. ‘Special’ prisoners would receive double rations, usually those that were willing to run errands for the cook and his staff. However much someone was originally allotted, they would be lucky to receive 80% of that amount.

What does one do with such corruption and inequalities? Complain? There was no one to complain to that wouldn’t respond swiftly and violently. The prisoners were not human, and the criminal code did not apply to them. They could only find salvation in their relationship with their god, their duty to each other, and their belief that they may one day be free.


A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days. The three extra days were for leap years.

The Myth of Sisyphus

by Albert Camus

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus seeks to answer what he considers the greatest, most base philosophical question- whether or not life is worth living. To Camus, we live in an absurd world that guarantees desires unassuaged, questions unanswered, and magna opera unfinished. To live is to struggle, to die is to break the chains of bondage. To think is to be cursed, wielding the capacity to understand the absurd nature of our reality but be utterly powerless to affect it in any meaningful way. Careful consideration reveals two options- intellectual honesty and the acceptance of absurdity, or suicide to escape this absurd world.

To Camus, suicide could take different forms. Physical suicide is the act of killing oneself, while the other option- philosophical suicide- merely required a rejection of the nature of the absurd, and an acceptance of other deities to worship. Sports, politics, religion- each of these could be used to veil the individual from the absurd. They are alive, but intellectually, philosophically, dead. 

Upon careful consideration and deep discussion of a topic warranting both, Camus decides suicide is not the answer. To him, there could still be joy in life even if there was no meaning- one must live, bravely, honestly, and joyously, despite the nature of our position. To Camus, our lives are comparable to that of Sisyphus- doomed to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down and have the task restarted. Though considered by the Greeks a horrible fate to be resigned to, Camus believes it must be viewed through a different lens. One must imagine Sisyphus happy in the brief, fleeting moments between pushing the boulder uphill and starting again from the bottom. In these instances Sisyphus is smiling, defying the Gods- you cursed me in this way, but you have not broken me. I will continue today, and I will continue tomorrow.

These arguments of The Myth of Sisyphus are deeply compelling and philosophically salient. Backing them up are examples of various figures and how their modes of existence relate to the lived experience in the absurd- though, admittedly, this section of the book seems to drag on for quite a while, reaching a point of redundancy.

Despite some minor shortcomings, the Myth of Sisyphus provides an accessible introduction to existentialist philosophy and is a great jumping-off point to some of the other works of Camus (or to his rival, Sartre, for that matter).

It is this divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together.

The Fall

by Albert Camus

Continuing my foray into existentialism, I opted for a book I first heard about through the endlessly entertaining Philosophize This! podcast. My expectations were high and were met across the board- Camus created a conflicted, compelling account of the absurd life and the natural outcomes of such a life sufficiently examined. Through the (a bit on the nose) narration of Jean-Baptiste Clamaunt, and alongside an unnamed narrator that allows for total immersion for the reader, a life of contradiction is examined. The tale begins in Mexico City, a seedy bar in a transient neighborhood in Amsterdam. A chance encounter between two strangers leads Jean-Baptiste to discuss his life, his beliefs, and ultimately, his fall.

Jean-Baptiste is, by his own account, awesome. His oration is unmatched, his intelligence and reason storied, and his generosity sincere- unlike others that do good for social standing, Jean-Baptiste really relished the opportunity to be of assistance. A wealthy, highly respected member of his community, Jean-Baptiste basically has it all- until his self-perceptions are challenged. Encountering a series of events that cause him to pause and reflect, he begins to unravel the nature of who he is.

The Fall excels in painting a portrait of a deeply conflicted, fragile man. The reader can see glimpses of themselves in this flawed antihero, comparing the inconsistencies of their own self-perception with their behavior when their self-perception is challenged.

Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality. All those books barely read, those friends barely loved, those cities barely visited, those women barely possessed! I went through the gestures out of boredom or absentmindedness.

The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air

by Soren Kierkegaard

Myth of Sisyphus referenced no other philosopher more than Kierkegaard, so it only seemed fitting to read some of his works and gain a better understading of each authors’ respective philosophies. Both authors focus on the differences between the natural world and man as a cause of man’s angst- unlike Camus, Kierkegaard’s response to this angst is to study and learn from the natural world.

Kierkegaard was a deeply religious philosopher with prose that read like preaching. Everything down to the title is biblically based, with the lily of the field and the bird of the air being references to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. “Why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Through the study of our teachers, the lily of the field and the bird of the air, we can learn three all-important lessons- silence, obedience, and joy. Silence, to allow what will come to come, without judgments. Obedience, to accept our position willingly without question. Joy, the consequence of living a life of silence and obedience, being what we are meant to be and reveling in it. Of the three, silence is the hardest to quickly explain, but it is best captured in this statement, “And this doubtless is the misfortune in the lives of the great majority of men, that they never sense the instant, that in their lives the eternal and the temporal are merely separate things. And why? Because they could not keep silent.”

Though compelling in part, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air didn’t quite hit the mark. Granted, I’m not Christian nor am I particularly religious in any form. It seemed like Kierkegaard was recreating eastern philosophy for a western audience. None of the ideas were particularly new, and in fact were significantly more contrived than the eastern source material. For such a short essay it is certainly worth a read, though there are better essays exploring the same topics.

The bird keeps silent and suffers. However much heartache it has, it keeps silent. Even the melancholic mourning dove of the desert or of solitude keeps silent. It sighs three times and then keeps silent, sighs again three times, but is essentially silent. For what it is it does not say; it does not complain; it accuses no one; it sighs only to fall silent again.

Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger

by Asenath Nicholson

A disappointing read for such a long time investment. Though it started somewhat well, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger could not deliver on any of the promise from the first two chapters and ultimately fizzled out well before the halfway mark.

In theory, this book was an exploration of the poor of Ireland through the lens of an American female traveler. In practice, this book was an explanation of how refined and superior the American traveler was compared to the subjects she met- who she did condescendingly speak well of, but usually in context to herself. Such a story cannot be separated by it’s time, and in context Nicholson’s narrative was exceptionally liberal considering the sensibilities of the day. In 2022, however, it reads like an upper-class Bostonian guffawing her way through Appalachia, taking in the spectacle of human suffering as one watches animals at a zoo.

Though deeply disappointing for long stretches, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger does provide insight into the destitute state of the Irish peasantry. Dialogue must be ignored as it is clearly fabricated, but the settings and action seem believable- meals consisting of small potatoes and salt for dipping, every day, until the potatoes ran out. Diets were not varied- there were potatoes, or there was nothing. The higher echelons, of course, had access to superior fare- for the poor, it was just the potato. Alcoholism ran rampant among man, driven by minimal employment opportunities and cultural emasculation. Stereotypes that persist to this day were horrifyingly real in ways that few realize- the potato and the beer were not desired socio-cultural choices, they were a means to subsist and a means to escape.

Nicholson succeeded in drawing interesting parallels between contemporary American society and the state of the Irish poor. To her, a northerner in favor of abolition, ignoring the plight of the Irish was morally inconsistent. She saw both practices- African enslavement and Irish subjugation and, ultimately, intentional starvation- as abhorrent. Many did not agree with her- other Americans in Ireland and the majority of the Irish upper class saw the poor as vermin, an unfortunate consequence of living an unrefined, intentionally ignorant life. To them the poor had created their own place in society, and therefore the rich could continue living free of any moral guilt. Sound familiar? 

My gut instinct was a 2-star review. As I write this, I remember the many interesting aspects of Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger and the insights that are available basically nowhere else. Upon deeper reflection, 2 stars just doesn’t sit right. Was all of the dialogue fabricated and self-serving? Yes, of course. Did the author maintain a holier-than-thou attitude throughout that made her detestable to the modern reader? Absolutely. Was so much of the book taken up by the author or random passerby referring to her as “but a stranger”, “a stranger in a foreign place”, “a poor cratur” or some combination of those, that you begin to think you’re living out some bizarre Twilight Zone esque nightmare scenario or reading a book that never ends with dialogue that just repeats ad infinitum? Oh, definitely yes.

Despite all of these negatives (of which, let’s not sugarcoat it, there are plenty) Nicholson created a somewhat-readable account of Ireland just before the Great Potato Famine. Like how Erik Larson was able to provide context to the origins of Third Reich Germany, illuminating the dimly-lit warning signs through a contemporary set of eyes, Nicholson succeeded in shining a lone, dim light on a subject that still affects the Irish experience to this day. 


God surely "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb" in Ireland. Such unheard-of sufferings as poor Erin has endured have drawn out all kinds of characters, except the very worst.

Consider the Lobster

by David Foster Wallace

The joy I experienced at discovering David Foster Wallace was matched by the sorrow at learning he had committed suicide in 2008. I had heard of him, of course, but only as a high brow writer of esoteric philosophy- essentially, I knew nothing and filled in the blanks based on his formal-sounding name. I was a fool, and I am so glad I finally rectified my mistake.

In one set of essays, David Foster Wallace has joined the ranks of my favorite authors,  alongside David Sedaris, Paulo Coelho, and John Krakauer- and managed to be the most engrossing of the bunch. His prose are a confused jumble of formal and informal, with technical terminology alongside curse words and slang- better than possibly anything I’ve ever read, it matches the confusion of human thought. The use of footnotes and endnotes add to the chaos, with page-long diatribes taking center stage quite regularly to offer semi-related anecdotes, further explanations of a point Wallace deemed important enough to include but not important enough to take away from the ongoing narrative, or just something fun.

Consider the Lobster starts with a bang- an account of the 1998 Adult Video News Awards, the people encountered there, and the similarities and differences between this branch of media and their mainstream counterparts. Explored without judgment a la Louis Theroux’s Call of the Weird, Wallace digs deep below the surface to uncover what this strange underworld says about the participants- and what our perceptions of them say about ourselves. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes depraved, and sometimes deeply insightful, Wallace weaves a narrative unlike any I’ve read before.

The following essays were great but significantly stylistically different. A review of a new dictionary led into a discussion on the development of language, and whether language is static with set rules (prescriptivism) or fluid based on contemporary usage (descriptivism). This skirmish of the culture wars is still being played out today in ways that become all-too-obvious as the essay continues. Further essays discuss the moments following the September 11th attacks, youth tennis star Tracy Austin, humor in Franz Kafka’s writings, and- of course- the Maine Lobster Festival. Not all of these writings are showstoppers, but each contain a nugget of genius that makes an otherwise mundane topic come to life.

It may be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it- and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

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