A Brief Introduction

So, first and foremost, this isn’t a book review. Not really, anyway. I recently started reading fervently again, continuing a love that I grew apart from- quite ironically- during university. Through analysis comes deeper understanding, and my hope is that by putting my thoughts in writing I’ll gain a deeper knowledge not just of the books I’ve read, but on the impact that they have had on me. If you have any book recommendations, please send them to me.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

by Donald Robertson

Among the most meaningful books of my adult life. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor provided my first real exposure to the philosophy of Stoicism and the science of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The book chronicled the life of Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and one of the last great Roman emperors.

Stoicism is one of the more accessible schools of philosophy, and an introduction is not really required to grasp the main points from the most popular Stoic texts. Despite this, How to Think Like A Roman Emperor provides a tremendous amount of value by digging into the main principles of Stoicism, the founders and thought leaders of the movement, and the ways in which Marcus Aurelius lived in accordance with his Stoic ideals. These three narratives were skillfully interwoven and concisely explained, leaving me with a solid foundation of Stoic philosphy and history.

At its core, Stoicism is a practicable philosophy. The application of Stoic ideals are meant to promote a healthier mental state and more principled decision making, similar to Cognitive Behavior Therapy which is at least partially derived from Stoicism. By understanding the main principles of Stoicism and how a great Stoic leader applied them throughout his life, a watered down version of the philosophy could be adopted by practically anyone.

Robertson is not the first person to discuss Stoicism in this way. In his books The Obstacle is the Way and  The Daily Stoic, pop-philosophy author Ryan Holiday takes a similar approach to introduce an ancient philosophical school to a modern audience. While these books provide a fantastic base-level understanding of Stoicism, they do not adequately convey the full meaning behind the texts of Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca. To fully understand the philosophy, much more reading is needed. 

This is where the brilliance of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor shines. Though Stoic literature is relatively easy to read, the context provided by Robertson makes the theses more cogent and the overall writings more impactful. I made connections between the important Stoic texts as I read them, armed with an understanding of the lives of the philosophers and how the philosophy fit into the greater philosophical context of the Hellenistic schools.

Read this book. Read this book for a toe-in-the-water introduction to philosophy. Read this book to dispel the myth that philosophy is difficult to understand or impracticable in modern life. Read this book to gain a better grasp on your mental health.

Just read this book.

Socrates used to say that death is like some prankster in a scary mask, dressed as a bogeyman to frighten small children. The wise man carefully removes the mask and, looking behind it, he finds nothing worth fearing.

Designing the Mind

by Ryan Bush

What was expected to be an alternative to Stoicism, CBT, and meditation ended up being an endorsement of each. Through modern tech-speak popular principles from eastern and western philosophies are synthesized into a new framework for self-optimization. Some ideas were novel and compelling- most were derivatives of practices and thought processes I was already familiar with.

I am conflicted about this book. On one hand, the main point- that we have the tools at our disposal to create better lives for ourselves- is adequately reasoned and defended. On the other hand, Bush didn’t really bring anything new to the table. Designing the Mind read like a totally new tech-based mental framework, without providing anything of his own besides modern programming terminology.

My perception of this book is likely skewed from having read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor first. Had the order been reversed, this book may have been perspective-shattering. Despite lacking many new takeaways, Bush did succeed in reinforcing some strategies for mindfulness and discipline. Still, the delivery quickly got on my nerves. We get it, the mind is like software. And with software you can re-write lines of code to perform intended functions in better, more efficient ways. This point is reiterated tirelessly throughout the book, sometimes by itself and sometimes through a third-party teaching.  Profound teachings of Buddhists, philosphers, or scientists read as forced or contrived after going through the tech-speak filter. While there is still some meaning in the teachings, it reads as silly compared to the source material.

The greatest benefit provided by Designing the Mind was an introduction to Vipassana meditation. I had never tried meditation previously, and this book finally convinced me to give it a go. Lifechanging? Not necessarily, but certainly deeply impactful. Between Vipassana, lovingkindness meditation, and a semi-regular yoga practice I was able to reach a level of mental clarity that I hadn’t previously experienced.

For someone looking for an easy to read self-help book to build better habits, this is a great choice. Though not nearly the equal to the sum of it’s inspirations, Designing the Mind is a good fit for your tech-bro-on-the-go looking to optimize his life in as few words as possible while providing the ultimate stroke to his ego. It is not quite my cup of tea, but to each their own.

Metacognition and the closely related mindfulness allow us to step outside of our software and analyze it, and vipassana meditation is one of the best methods for cultivating these qualities.

Team Human

by Douglas Rushkoff

Few books attempt to solve the world’s problems, and most that try fail miserably in coming close to anything actionable. This books is different.

Though it describes the steep slope of societal degradation that we continue to slide down, Team Human is a story of hope and optimism much more than pessimism. We have very real problems that seem insurmountable, but in the course of human history we have showed that it is precisely times like these that real progress is made.

I was first exposed to Rushkoff’s ideas during his appearance on the Duncan Trussel Family Hour. At the time, all I knew about him was that he was on MIT’s list of the top 10 most influential intellectuals in the world. I expected an old soft-spoken scholar, sharp and authoritative, probably British. What I heard was quite the opposite- an unpretentious, easygoing guy who really did walk the walk of his philosophy. His ideas resonated with me, and less than an hour after listening to his episode I had bought the book on Kindle and started reading.

Team Human is the rejection of the structures and systems that tear us apart, and an acceptance and celebration of the forces that bring us together. The understanding that different human factions do not exist in any real capacity, and that there is only one legitimate team- Team Human- that must prevail if our civilization is to continue on the right path. While this may sound like new age hippie nonsense, it is presented in a thoroughly reasoned way that challenges our understanding of human institutions- our money, media, education system, and so much more. We created these systems to work for us, though we ultimately ended up working for the systems themselves.

This issue of human inventions growing to end up at cross purposes of their original intentions is a central theme of Team Human. As Rushkoff puts it, “the figure becomes the ground”, meaning the system that were created to serve humans grow into institutions that require humans to serve them. 

Rushkoff puts into words a problem that everyone is aware of but can’t quite put their finger on, and provides a solution that is almost universally agreeable to all walks of life. An absolutely must-read book for anyone that cares about building a better future. 

To have autonomy without interdependency leads to isolation or narcissism. To have interdependency with no autonomy stunts our psychological growth. Healthy people live in social groups that have learned to balance or, better, marry these two imperatives.

Siddharta

by Herman Hesse

A tale so expertly crafted it could have only come from the pen of Herman Hesse. Siddharta chronicles the path of Siddharta Gautama on his way to reaching enlightenment. First a Brahmin, then an ascetic, next a businessman, and finally a riverman. Over the course of this journey, a lifetime of experiences deeply contemplated culminates in a cosmic realization.

I started reading this book shortly after completing a re-read of the classic Journey to the East. Written in similar prose but with a significantly less abstract story, Siddharta explores different life paths and where they ultimately lead. Though many people will try to sell their version of enlightenment, it is important to recognize the fallacies in their logic and the hypocrisies in their actions. The truth must be sought, even as we are pitched snake oil from the well-meaning but misled.

Siddharta was a deceptively easy read, short enough to be completed in a few days and read again fully within a week. For maximum impact, I’d recommend completing it twice, or just reading it once slowly and intentionally, not hesitating to read back over dense paragraphs. 

I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.

Better Small Talk

by Patrick King

Well, they can’t all be winners. Better Small Talk was a great concept poorly executed, failing to adequately convey the why behind better conversation. The book was written as a set of scenarios with call-and-response, as well as general guidelines for promoting more meaningful dialogue and avoiding awkward silences.

Though generally unhelpful and at times potentially harmful (some examples were laughably inappropriate in nearly all social situations) there was some value that could be derived. All of the recommendations, of which there were many, could be extrapolated to one of a small handful of personal traits or behaviors that do impact the gift of gab.

I believe it is impossible to follow a few rules and simply “become” a better conversationalist. Instead, behavior and perspective must be changed in a way that promotes connection. Those that live exciting lives have more to talk about, making talking easier. Along the same lines, those that care about what others say are easy to talk to and thus good conversationalists.

The path to better small talk is much less linear than this book would lead us to believe. Still, King provides ample advice on how to position yourself well for better conversation. Actionable in it’s own right? No, not at all. Helpful to pinpoint personal shortcomings that lead to poor conversation? Yes, absolutely.

What this book does best is connect quality of life with conversational acumen. Humans are social creatures, requiring deep connections with one another to lead fulfilling lives. Recognizing the reasons behind our social shortcomings can lead us to a richer, more meaningful existence.

They found a clear correlation between substantive and deep discussions and greater well-being and happiness. It's something you've probably suspected or even felt before, but being vulnerable and open with others is a deeply satisfying activity on many levels.

Meditations

by Marcus Aurelius

A classic Stoic text, made all the more meaningful by the context provided by Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Meditations is a personal journal kept by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, not originally intended for anything more than introspection by the author. While some sections read as other philosophical texts do, most chapters are personal and refreshingly open. Meditations begins by listing important people in the life and development of the Roman, detailing the contributions that each made to his development. Much of the text has a similar introspective quality, reading as if you are following along with Marcus through his life, reading how he manages hardship, success, life, and death.

Through the many events referenced throughout the period the book was written (presumably over much of Aurelius’ life) there is a consistent lens used to interpret them. The ultimate goal is to live a virtuous life, and a virtuous life is one that is lived in accordance with nature and reason. Thereby, all situations should be approached rationally, and the course of action must be that which is most virtuous and most in accordance with the natural order.

Historically, Meditations provides a rare glimpse into the mind of what many historians consider to be the last great Roman emperor. Politically, the book provides an example of an archetypal leader with relationship and emotional management strategies that still prove effective today. Philosophically, it is one of the most important Stoic texts and depicts Stoic philosophy in action better than any other existing text. Whatever your interest, there is likely value to be gained from reading Meditations.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Discourses & Enchiridion

by Epictetus

Two very similar topics with drastically different deliveries. Discourses is the seminal work of arguably the most renowned Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, and Enchiridion (or ‘The Manual’ for those that don’t speak Latin) is effectively the SparkNotes version authored by the same man. Both are very much worth a read, and I would recommend starting with Discourses to get the full scope of Epictetus’ ideas before having the main points reiterated directly in Enchiridion.

Of all of the Stoic texts I read in 2021, Enchiridion resonated with me the most. For one, it was the most applicable- Discourses discusses Stoic metaphysics and logic at length, which while very interesting, does not provide many direct takeaways. Meditations did have a focus on ethics, but was a bit too personal to the author (for good reason, considering it was his journal). Enchiridion provides the meat of practical Stoicism, creating a literal manual for how to live a good life based on Stoic ethics. Easy to read and concise, it can be consumed over the course of a few days without any background needed on Stoicism.

To clarify, Enchiridion was not written by Epictetus, but was  a summary of Discourses and the teachings of Epictetus. It was written by Arrian of Nicomedia, a pupil of Epictetus. Though it is often attributed to Epictetus and is formally called The Enchidion of Epictetus, Epictetus was not in fact the author.

It is the action of an uneducated man to blame others for his own misfortune; but a man who enters education of this kind, will blame himself; and a man perfected, will blame neither himself or others.

On the Shortness of Life

by Seneca the Younger

A powerful short essay (less than 100 pages) on how to live a meaningful life given the constraints of our mortality. Seneca proposes that the ultimate resource is time, and that we paradoxically hoarde earthly possessions while being cavalier with what we allow to take up what should be cherished most.

Seneca doesn’t believe that our time is limited, but instead that we only use our time to a fraction of its full potential. As he says, ““It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” Part of this wastefulness, Seneca argues, is due to a failure to recognize our own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. By being more aware of the certainty of death, we can more fully live.

While many arguments in this book are deeply impactful, others are a bit silly. Seneca reiterates a main Stoic theme of living in accordance with nature and focusing on needs rather than vices. Continuing to argue for the actions of a life well lived, Seneca states that the practice of philosophy is paramount to “the good life”. Personally, I’m not so sure about that. Considering Seneca’s position as a philosopher living under the murderous Emperor Nero that would later force Seneca to commit suicide, it makes sense why he would promote philosophy as the path to the best lived life.

Overall, On the Shortness of Life is a compelling short read that is sure to spark some manner of introspection. Everyone is equally guilty of letting life pass them by, and everyone is equally capable of taking steps to correct that error. Though not as powerful as the Enchiridion, On the Shortness of Life is well worth a few hours’ investment to better understand what a few hours is truly worth.

They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.

The Art of Saying No

by Damon Zahariades

What a happy accident that I found this book in such close proximity to On the Shortness of Life.

I don’t really mind saying no. I try to help out as much as possible when I can, but I’m usually pretty good at balancing my priorities. The Art of Saying No seems to focus on people pleasers, helping them to realize that it isn’t their job to help out all the time, and they have no reason to feel bad for denying someone’s request. Though I don’t really fit the target audience for this book, it did offer up an interesting perspective on the effect saying no has on us.

Saying no sucks. It hurts the person requesting, and it hurts the person requested. Understanding how this feeling impacts our decision making can help us make more impartial decisions on when to say yes and when to say no. Furthermore, our relationships are impacted by how we respond to requests for help.

The Art of Saying No is probably a fantastic book for… people that struggle to say no. If you don’t have such a problem, it’s still worth a read to gain a better understanding of the forces at play when we say no and how our responses are perceived. How the impact of saying no is perceived given delivery and timing is also interestingly described. For example, though the denier stalls due to feelings of guilt, they are just hurting the requestor more by not being upfront about their inability to help. That wasted time could’ve been spent finding someone else or doing it themselves- generally, the sooner the response is given the better for everyone involved. Though my behavior did not change much from reading this book, my response time to requests became much shorter.

I think the whole topic can be summed up succinctly; if you can, say yes, if you can’t, say no. Don’t complicate the matter, don’t make excuses, don’t apologize. Did I need a book to teach me this? Perhaps not, but it sure did drive the point home.

We have a limited number of hours to play with each day. That means every time we say yes to someone, we’re saying no to someone or something else.

The Coddling of the American Mind

by G. Lukianoff and J. Haidt

It takes a tremendous amount of tact to pull off this ambitious of a book without serious blowback. Lukianoff and Haidt pull no punches in this incisive exploration of the American education system. Leaving little room for rebuttal, they back up their arguments with ample research and succeed in painting a picture of just what went wrong in American higher education and upper class family life. Most important of all, they provide a framework for how we can get back on track.

The book begins with a fictional hiking trip to Greece where the authors meet the Oracle of Koalemos. This fictional holy man teaches them the three truths- “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”, “always trust your feelings”, and “life is a battle between good people and evil people”. If you’re thinking, “wow, that doesn’t sound remotely correct”, congratulations, you’re right. The authors proceed in explaining these “Three Great Untruths”, tackling the pervasiveness of each throughout our homes, school systems, and universities. Despite the seriousness and at times overtly depressing nature of the subject matter, the authors inject humor throughout, making it feel like a less sobering read. 

Perhaps the most cogent argument for abandoning these Great Untruths is the effect they have on the believer. Though the ideas were taught to students in an effort to protect them, they often have the opposite effect- each belief correlates with higher rates of depression and anxiety. Fixing these false perceptions isn’t just needed for societal good- it’s a human rights issue that threatens our children.

If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'brien

I’ve owned The Things They Carried for years but just never quite got around to reading it. As soon as I bothered opening it up and flicking through the first few pages, I was hooked. The narrative that O’Brien weaves pulls on your heartstrings, bringing you in to the experience and conveying the complex weight that war carries.

As a civilian, it’s hard to understand what wartime soldiers go through. As a wartime soldier, it’s hard to process your experiences. The Things They Carried provides a nuanced look at the reality of war- the companionship, the hatred, the fear, the responsibility, the shame, all of it. Derided as “vulgar” and “complete garbage trash” by suburbanites that haven’t seen the outside of their gated communities, this book presents a clear picture of the blurriness of war for those willing to view it.

The “reality” of war is also examined as a false concept. Reality in a narrative is secondary to the subjective truth of what an experience means to the storyteller. Whatever actually happened takes a backseat to the thoughts, feelings, and lasting impact that the event provided. Maybe there was some truth in the details, and maybe the narrative was compelling, but that is not where the meaning lies.  O’Brien explores this concept both in the stories he shares from his fictional war buddies and through his fictional inner turmoil deciding what to leave in, leave out, or change in his book.

What is war? War is hell. War is complicated. War is life-changing. War is life ending. War is permanent. War is an enigma, explored and dissected in great length by O’Brien over the course of 20 interrelated short stories, each more profound than the last. 

Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference- a powerful, implacable beauty- and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.

The Accidental President

by AJ Baime

Like finding a Monet at a Goodwill. I entered into this book with no real expectations, but left amazed at the roller coaster ride that was the last year of Harry Truman’s life pre-presidency, and the first four months after he took control of the oval office.

First and foremost, he wasn’t supposed to be there. Making his way to the national political stage was largely accidental, and finding his way to the Democratic ticket with FDR was nothing short of miraculous. A few short years previous and he had zero political experience, minimal political ambitions, and next to no money. What little experience he did have was marred by a relationship with a shady political machine boss that would wind up in prison. Yet, he persisted- largely against the better wishes of his own mother, his wife, and even himself on multiple occasions.

How he became president was odd enough, but it was nothing compared to his first few months in office. Following the death of FDR, Truman realized just how much was going on behind the scenes that he was never made privvy to. Immediately after taking control of the White House, Truman oversaw the completion of the atomic bomb, the death of Hitler and surrender of the Nazis, and negotiations with the Big Three at Potsdam that would alter the course of history for decades to come.

Through all of this, Truman was in shock at how he came to be in such a position in the first place. His private writings disclose the immense pressure and anxiety that he kept behind closed doors. Still, he led with dignity and poise, a shining example of how an ordinary man can rise to extraordinary circumstances. 

My main takeaway from The Accidental President was the ultimate authority of fate to guide us to where we need to go. As a poor 27 year old farmer named Harry Truman once said, “I’ve always had a sneakin’ notion that someday maybe I’d amount to something. I doubt it now though like everything.”

He raised my brother and myself to believe that honor is worth more than money. And that's the reason we never got rich.

The Art of War

by Sun Tzu

A great book for military tacticians, military historians, and leaders in any walk of life. The version I read was the Bob Sutton adaptation on the Dr. Lionel Giles translation, an edition designed for English speakers with little knowledge of Chinese language but an appreciation of Chinese history. The actual Sun Tzu text comprised only about 20-30 percent of the book, with the remainder being supplemental notes.

I knew that this version was note-heavy, but I did not anticipate just how overbearing the notes would be. To read The Art of War is to read The Art of War, but this was another beast entirely- not necessarily bad, but certainly taking away from the original intention of the text. Through many sections, long stories are added to provide examples of military successes that used the principles described. Most refer back to ancient China, while others pull from US and English military history. The text itself is also heavily scrutinized, both in terms of possible alternative translations and sections that may not have originated with Sun Tzu at all. Changes in writing style, odd chapter structuring, and contraditions are pointed out and analyzed.

I believe that this translation is a fantastic second reading of The Art of War. Starting with the base translation with some footnotes would allow one to understand the text itself before diving into the weeds with the Dr. Giles translation. While the notes provided are extraordinarily comprehensive, they defy their intended purpose to provide a more thorough understanding of the text to anyone that isn’t already familiar with the writing. 

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

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 without pretense or slant. 

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.

Slaughterhouse-Five

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. 

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 seem more likely than the then-prevailing narrative. 

More coming soon!

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? 

Coming Soon!

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.

Coming Soon!

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.