Books of 2019

I was a gamer. Words on a page did not enrapture me to the degree that interactive media did. Symbiosis between the visual, aural, narrative, and interactive was beauty itself.

That's not to say I didn't read. Games have their fair share of text, but I had trouble maintaining focus when reading physical books. In fact, the first five Harry Potter books are the only fiction books I can recall reading in my life prior to graduating from university. I read these when I was eleven, shortly before the sixth book came out, which I bought but never finished.

Curiously, this lack of attention didn't translate to most other forms of reading. Textbooks didn't pose a problem—they were even enjoyable—and I spent entire evenings getting lost on Wikipedia reading disjoint topics inapplicable to my life at the time, both real and fictitious.

My aversion to books began bothering me more after university. People would speak of the joy, heartbreak, escapism, feeling, and meaning that they would find in books. I wanted to know what that was like.

I became aware of potential causes for a lack of focus when reading. The desire to read a book “perfectly”. Reading OCD. Justifying the time investment. Justifying the effort investment. I tackled these mainly through forced exposure.

Game of Thrones had been causing a raucous for a few years. I knew that the book was well regarded, even if it was the TV series that everyone seemed to be gaping over. I gave it a shot, finished it, and enjoyed it. This was in 2015, and through the remainder of that year and 2016 I read the next four books.

A reader, I was not. The hobby was still strictly on the sidelines. But I was less afraid to pick up books now. In 2017 I branched into science fiction with Rendezvous with Rama and Leviathan Wakes. In 2018, Northern Lights. That wall in my mind that represented book reading as an unpleasant and laborious activity—one that I had reinforced for many years—was slowly crumbling.

But it was this year, in 2019, that it got wiped off of the map.

The Rational Male, by Rollo Tomassi

It's December 2018. It's almost Christmas. People are enjoying themselves. I'm in the pub. I'm single. My friend might have been single. Sometimes it's hard to keep track. “Hey buddy, you should read The Rational Male, by Rollo Tomassi. It will change your life. But be warned, go in with an open mind, for he has some strong opinions.” Oh please, they're just words and ideas about how to get women. As if they're going to hurt me. Pfff.

It's January 2019. It's cold, I'm on my couch, and I'm reeling from what I just read. I just finished The Rational Male.

If you look up reviews for The Rational Male, you will find it to a divisive book. I believe I'm a member of the target audience. With their voice, I can say it can also be a damaging book, if one lets it be. For the following few weeks I trudged around in an apathetic haze, bewildered at what I had read, blurry-eyed from having my eyes ripped open and forced to view the truth of courtship, its games and its deception. The overriding self-preservation all of its pawns feel as they spin their plates or dance their tongues in mock-flattery. The knowledge that I had witnessed this for years and had been interpreting it all wrong. What else was there to do other than sit and bear the weight of the red pill?

Then I remembered that this is an opinion of one man—or one community, if I'm being generous—and not objective truth.

I didn't get anywhere after reading the book, but then again I didn't put what it had to say into practice. And the book called me out on this. Either one will take what it has to say and wield in the forthcoming slaughter, or one will “go their own way.” Either way, their eyes have been opened and they will never look at gender dynamics in the same away again. In this, I think the book is correct.

I went my own way, and my eyes were indeed opened. I've sought the value in between the dogma, and it is there. I identified with its notion of the white-knight beta. I support its advocacy of ascertaining people's motivations and using their behaviour as the best measure for their intentions. But I now know of other books that teach these lessons more succinctly and with less bravado.

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

After The Rational Male, I wanted to crawl into a hole for a bit. I looked back on Northern Lights fondly and so I had no qualms pursuing the next book the His Dark Materials series, The Subtle Knife.

This book grows in scope with the addition of a new protagonist. Pullman's unshackled remarks on religious subjugation left me with the slightest discomfort in Northern Lights, despite my whole-hearted support for his sentiment. I was happy to see it fleshed out further in this book.

Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday

Evidently I still needed some answers that The Rational Male didn't give me. It did, however, make numerous references to The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, and through researching that I discovered Ryan Holiday, who Greene mentored. Ego is the Enemy was a small and approachable book that changed everything.

If The Rational Male showed the ugly side of modern life, Ego is the Enemy gave me new hope. A stark difference is its focus on the self. Self-improvement, self-benchmarking, self-restraint, and self-love.

It's a book filled with wisdom. For those left wanting more, Holiday directs us to his blog. There are articles on reading more, reading above your level, and introduced me to the idea of a commonplace book. This final gem is what made reading practical for me. I began taking notes in the books I was reading and underlining phrases I found interesting. I wrote the definitions of words I didn't know in the margins. Once I finished a book, I compiled the notes, highlights, and definitions into a compendium for future reference.

Suddenly reading a book, any book, became a tangible way to assimilate information. There was a process in place. I no longer worried that my eyes were reading the letters but that my brain wasn't incorporating the information. My notes were proof of comprehension.

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

I wanted a popular science book that I could sink my teeth into. One that, once finished, would leave me with new ideas I could refer back to, a wider vocabulary, and an enriched perspective of the world. Sapiens had been making the rounds in the office for a period in my last job and seemed like a good fit.

It certainly was. It was filled to the brim with nuggets like:

  • Humans are born underdeveloped compared to other animals and this enables more tailored socialisation.
  • Dunbar's number, a suggested cognitive limit for the number of stable social relationships one can form.
  • The Original Affluent Society, highlighting how ancient foragers ate wholesome and varied diets, worked short hours and had rare exposure to infectious disease, to contrast with the idea of humanity's supposed increasing prosperity.
  • Wheat is a remarkably successful species from an evolutionary perspective. Cattle too, even if their existence is often short and miserable.
  • Money is essentially a means of establishing mutual trust among strangers.
  • Nothing is “unnatural” if considered from a biological perspective.
  • Knowledge is that which empowers, not that which is true, since truth is often subjective.
  • Supposedly long-standing practices are surprisingly temporary. Today's consumerism and self-indulgent marketing would have been considered abhorrent not all that long ago.

Perception plays a key theme in this book and is something I find referenced to in books throughout the year.

Caliban's War, by James S. A. Corey

Far be it from me to say you can't find wisdom in fiction. There are a few interesting themes here. Post-scarcity, we may move away from the haves and have-nots, to the engaged and the apathetic. Cascading failures in software aren't going away and still happen in the far future, because any such system is intrinsicly subjected to catastrophe. And that's okay, because catastrophe is the prelude for what comes next: renewal.

I was disappointed with the story. It didn't have the set pieces like the first book and I missed Miller. His contrast with Holden was an asset to the first book. I wasn't left with a desire to read further into the series.

Yes, I know the ending should have made me happy, but it wasn't enough.

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

So let's try the third book of a series I had thoroughly enjoyed.

The Amber Spyglass was the best of the trilogy in a trilogy of good books. There was elation and despair, interesting side characters, a grand evolution of the mythos, and a fitting finale. There were also ideas to ponder, on how to make up one's own mind on one's purpose, and on the value of suffering.

The Book of Dust is high on my list.

Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan

Reading in the first-person takes getting used to. So does detective fiction. Oh, it's also my first cyberpunk book. This book struck many firsts and hence I have little to compare it with. In places, the book was difficult to get through. I did enjoy it and plan to read the next in the series, but I will explore other domains of science fiction first.

The Chimp Paradox, by Dr Steve Peters

A work colleague recommended The Chimp Paradox to me after our numerous discussions on the role of perceptions on interpersonal relationships.

The book proposes that these perceptions are manifested from two opposing entities within one's mind. The Chimp is the emotional, instinctual, insecure interpreter of feelings and operates on body language and social ques. The Human is the rational, cognitive, communicative practitioner of practicalities. Much of the book explains how to manage one's Chimp through nurturing it, distracting it, letting it have its way in a controlled environment, and using irrefutable facts that it cannot argue with to convince it of inconvenient truths.

There are a host of supporting characters like The Computer, Gremlins, and Goblins to further help make psychological processes more relatable. Archetypal mindsets like that of Snow White and the Alpha Wolf are described to give anchoring. A framework for having difficult conversations is included. The nature of stress, both ad-hoc and chronic, is explored. It ends with analysing how to define one's happiness and success.

The book insisted on keeping things at a high level and the science behind its assertions is relegated to one of the appendices. Its model is useful but it left me longing for a richer examination of these topics.

How Not to Die, by Michael Gregor, MD

This was a big one. I spent numerous journeys on the bus to and from work plodding through How Not to Die. Often is was tiresome, often downright repetitive, but well worth it once I reached the end because it changed so much for me.

How Not do Die, supported by over one thousand references in its bibliography, goes into the causes, symptoms, mitigations, and methods of prevention for some of the most common diseases in the Western world. The typical offenders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are present but it also covers suicidal depression and iatrogenic causes. That is, diseases caused by medical professionals themselves, typically from mistakes or questionable practices.

And that's only the first half of the book. The second half explores Gregor's Daily Dozen dietary guidelines. How many portions of legumes should one eat per day, and how large should one portion be? Are some root vegetables better than others? Are some greens dangerous if eaten in large amounts or day-in and day-out? Gregor goes into intricate detail on this and more and includes the references to back up his assertions.

He also recommends ninety minutes of lighter exercise or forty minutes of heavier exercise daily. I miss the reading sessions from my commute, now that I walk to and from work, but feel better because of it. The book made vegetarianism practical for me, and on many days I even manage vaganism. His approach to incremental changes to diet, rather than going cold-turkey, has my full support.

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

A different work colleague surprised me when he brought this in one day for me to read. This was just before a vacation to Iceland and the book was my feed throughout.

Man's Search for Meaning is a beautiful book. It's a poignant and candid characterisation of embracing one's suffering and turning it into strength. Frankl gives sound arguments for his conclusions, drawn from his own experiences. I would relish the chance to delve into this man's mind once again and plan to acquire my own copy of the book.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J. K. Rowling

Detective mysteries in the far future, mind models, nutritional primers, and experiences from Holocaust victims had left me yearning for some single-minded fantasy. The edition sold in Tesco had gorgeous cover art and all seven books were only £24.50. Why not?

The book had starker dark undertones than I remembered from when I last read it about fifteen years ago. Many of the characters, even the supposedly “good” ones, are portrayed as tragic and dour figures. I'm keen to see if the remaining books differ from my memory of them when I get round to reading them.

The Inner Life of Animals, by Peter Wohlleben

I saw a copy of The Inner Life of Animals for £3, so again I thought I might as well.

This book is far more anecdotal than scientific. Wohlleben's stories, whilst charming, lack a central narrative. I didn't have a direction of where the book was heading. It felt like a haphazard collection of thoughts. I still found value in his tales, particularly since I just need to step outside to enter his world, but I'm not enthused to read Wohlleben's earlier and highly regarded The Inner Life of Trees.

The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre

In one word: fascinating. Macintyre does a sensational job of weaving the tangled tale for our KGB spy turned MI6 agent, Oleg Gordievsky, into satiating drama.

Beginning with his early life, Gordievsky experiences conflicting idealogies in his own home, some clear and some in the shadows. Through events like the Prague Spring, he eventually jumps ship and, as a result, plays a crucial role in improving diplomatic relations between East and West through his influence on both sides. But he's found out and forced to make a daring escape from Moscow, through Finland, into Norway, and finally to London.

One of the finest qualities of the book is its pacing. I was enthralled from start to finish. The narrative is supported with remarks from Gordievsky himself and those close to him, such as his wife, his mentors and friends within the KGB, and the MI6 team that supported him prior to his public defection. Upon finishing, I immediately went looking for another Macintyre book to add to my list.

Unnatural Causes, by Dr Richard Shepherd

This book captivated me for many of the same reasons that The Spy and the Traitor did. A memoir from Shepherd's fledgling enthusiasm to become his childhood hero, his experiences in court, at crime scenes, and of course in the mortuary, through to his experiences in major disasters and balancing his family life, to culminating in his struggles with PTSD.

Chapter after chapter demonstrates his dedication to his field. There are numerous references to the malleable nature of truth and justice and his own journey to come to terms with this. I admire his honesty when writing about difficult subjects, even when they affected him personally.

Favourite quotes

In an effort to create my own commonplace book, here are some of my favourite quotes from the books of this year.

The are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

— Yuval Noah Harari

On the surface, this can sound downright brutal and borne of a cold, analytical mind. Yet I find this to be a liberating idea. None of the things mentioned are objective givens and hence should not be taken for granted. That's not to say that they don't exist, but their existence is limited to a subjective and bounded context shared by like-minded individuals. That empowers those individuals to create those things as they see fit. They're in control. That is a good thing.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

— Yuval Noah Harari

However, that control is still shared among society as a whole. Individuals are still subjugated to its rules. I don't necessarily see the implied negative of a bigger prison. A prison that is so large that you can't see its perimeter may still be a prison, but does that really matter?

Biology enables, culture forbids.

— Yuval Noah Harari

Likewise, I find it a liberating idea that nature itself is an enabler. It is humans that impose the constraints, and for good reason, because without constraints we couldn't have order.

If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable. Conversly, once craving arises in a person's mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering.

— Yuval Noah Harari

This idea needn't be applied just to gods. Any relationship that sees one party craving something that the party has the power to provide could see a similar dynamic. The lesson, I believe, is to control craving or least satiate it through your own means. Make your wants independent of others.

So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine. For example, studying how Europeans came to dominate Africans enables us to realise that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the racial hierarchy, and that the world might well be arranged differently.

— Yuval Noah Harari

An important reminder for a software engineer like me to widen his horizons.

… [European empires] wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the idealogies we use in order to judge them.

— Yuval Noah Harari

This again goes back to perception and the temporal nature of it. Being mindful of how you arrived at the judgement you are passing can help determine if that judgement is fair or even applicable.

Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt.

— Yuval Noah Harari

This can't be proved nor disproved. The more important point is that the life you find yourself in may not be entirely aligned with your nature, and it's a fruitful journey to explore other avenues in an effort to attain that alignment.

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

— Yuval Noah Harari

Harari was referring to humans here, particularly as our technological prowess grows alongside the discord of our intentions. It's solemn rhetoric for one possible future.

To do something the first time was an exploration. To do it again was to take all the things they had learned, and refine, improve, perfect.

— Praxidike Meng

This highlights the almost-therapeutic respite found in repetition.

And that's what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us, and we never knew.

— Unnamed soldier in the Land of the Dead

How easy it is to submit to the expectations of others. If instead, one took responsibility for their time here, they may have more confrontation and more uncertainty, but they wouldn't share the regret of this solider.

I'd made myself believe that I was fine and happy and fulfilled on my own without the love of anyone else. Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I'd spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn't matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.

— Mary Malone

There is the belief of one's sovereignty in happiness and whether this can be achieved in isolation. Those without the means to go to China are confronted with this fact and must come to terms with it. It's helpful to remember that going to China is one path of many, one destination of many, but it's a destination put on a grand pedestal these days. Remember that the other destinations are still there. Even if they are not as popular to most people, they may still hold meaning.

“Grace attained [from conscious understanding and a lifetime of effort] is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely.

— Xaphania

Reward comes through work and the reward is the journey, not the result.

Building the kingdom of heaven here and now requires one to be “cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and [one must] study and think, and work hard.

— Lyra Belacqua

One can chose to wait for their kingdom of heaven until their next job, or once they move to another country, or after they retire, or after they die. Or they could build it here and now. It's a choice.


books

3735 Words

2019-12-29