Here are the books I managed to read in 2017, along with the random notes I added to Goodreads...
by Shūsaku Endō
This is a book about faith, a concept very foreign to me. Every time I feel faithful to any idea, I try to wake up and try to remind myself that nothing should be beyond doubt. One could say that I have faith in reason, and I often think about that. While I could not empathize with the faith of the protagonist, his moments of doubt was what made the novel attractive to me.
The Gene: An Intimate History (****)
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
I loved his earlier book on cancer, and this one has the same qualities. He is a wonderful story teller. I was already familiar with most of the facts presented here, yet I read it like a thriller -- and that is his skill. I met him once at a TED conference, and he was just as as eloquent and passionate. Instead of a pile of facts, he knows the magic to make them human. There was one topic that was conspicuous by its relative absence -- GMO foods. Did he just try to avoid the controversy? As a scientist I can imagine his position on this debate, but in the non-scientific community it triggers strong passions. Did he try not to engage with that group?
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (****)
by Sarah Bakewell
As we all know, Existentialism is a hard thing to define, as there are as many variations and interpretations as there are existentialists out there. Bakewell does an excellent job of filtering out the most essential aspects of this school of thought and explore all its major variants. But instead of creating a heavy book on phenomenology and existentialism, she humanizes them my mixing in the characters and anecdotes that made it happen. It starts with the trio of characters in Paris of early 1930s – Sartre, Beauvoir, and Aron. Eventually it covers in depth all the thinkers that contributed to the development of these ideas – Camus, Heidegger, Marleau-Ponty, Mardoch, and many others. This is a not an easy bunch to discuss as each of them had truly colorful lives, full of contradictions, conflicts, and complex ideas. The author makes you feel as if you are part of the gathering. It is a great way to understand one of the greatest intellectual journeys of the past century.
Wind/Pinball: Two Novels (**)
by Haruki Murakami
Reading Murakami had been a great journey -- I could have done without this one.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (***)
by Olivia Laing
A powerful and haunting book about urban loneliness, as experienced by a bunch of extraordinary artists like Hopper, Warhol, and Darger in the backdrop of New York and Chicago. Theses artists left behind a trail in their works and in their watched lives that the author could follow and try to understand the texture of their loneliness and how they used it in their creative lives.
While extremely interesting, I was expecting a different book. I hoped, apart from the artist's lives, who are all exceptional people with extraordinary lives, she would also explore the loneliness of unremarkable people, just ordinary people like us. In the crowded cities we live in, and in the even more crowded spaces in social media, we are all facing a new kind of loneliness. While constantly being surrounded by friends, there is a growing crisis of our inability to communicate, and to find people who would are willing to understand. The book does touch upon this world, but I wish it spent more time about this problem, that is faced by a much larger group, than the less common spaces that her characters resided.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (*****)
by Atul Gawande
This was almost the right time for me to read this extremely important book. I wish I read it a year or so ago when my 85 year old mother became bed ridden, 12,000 miles away from where I live. She died a few weeks ago, and it would have helped if I read the book while she was still there. I am not entirely sure if my actual actions would have changed, but I have a feeling it might have. But equally importantly, I think I would have understood her needs a lot better. Now she is gone, but I still have my 93 year old father on the other side of the globe. After two fall-related hip surgeries, he has become almost immobile. His mind is slowly going. Above all, he is alone, under the care of professional caregivers. I talk to him several times a day on the phone. I watch him whenever I can on an internet-based camera. But I cannot do much to improve the quality of his life or reduce his terrible loneliness.
This book made sense of what old people go through at the end of their lives. It touches upon every aspect of the problem -- about the economic and social factors behind why old people often have to live their lives alone, about the focus of current medicine to extend life without paying enough attention to what really matters to the patients, about what makes us happy towards the end, about what we can do to make things a little easier for our parents, about how to put a brake on the spiraling costs of elderly care, and about how we perceive death in modern, industrial societies.
I think anyone who has a loved one who is getting old would benefit tremendously from this book. I know for sure that I did. It is not only because of my parents but I myself am getting old. I believe I will make clearer choices about my old age now that I understand the process a little better. It would not make my old age any easier, but I have a better perspective now, and it will help me plan it a little better.
I am praising this book not because of its literary quality, which is good, but for its sheer utility. I would strongly recommend this book to all my friends, irrespective of their age, their geographical location, and their financial status. Even if you do not have aging parents or other loved ones, but if you believe you are going to die at some point then this book might help you.
by Ann Patchett
The Mind-Body Problem (****)
by Jonathan Westphal
This is the first book I have read on this subject that attempts to organize all the philosophical and scientific work that has been done on the topic of mind-body problem, and the associated topic of consciousness, in a systematic way. It does a wonderful job of first establishing a framework, and then viewing each approach through history in terms of this common framework, thus making it possible for us to comprehend the similarities and differences between the different models.
My only disappointment is about something I have seen with many other philosophers working in this area. They all have a tendency to believe that consciousness necessarily needs a human brain, and any claim that a non-biological entity can be conscious is dismissed without any further consideration. The author here makes statements like since something is a stream of bits, it cannot be conscious, as if this statement should be self evident. There is also a lack of deep understanding or appreciation of the emergent processes in complex and recursive systems, which may hold the key to understanding consciousness, and may create conscious machines in the not too distant future. My knowledge of philosophy is barely enough to understand this book, but it is not enough to argue this point in philosophical language, but I'd love to follow that argument.
by Rachel Cusk
The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (**)
by Stephen Grosz
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (*****)
by Daniel C. Dennett
This book is like many other Daniel Dennett books I've read -- incredibly intelligent, persuasive, and pushes us to think deeply. It makes us question some of our most closely held beliefs and think outside of ideas that seemed unquestionable for centuries. If you are interested in things such as consciousness, free will, rationality, and cultural evolution then you cannot ignore this book. You don't have to agree with what he has to say, but you have to read it to take any position in this debate
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (*****)
by Yuval Noah Harari
You may not agree with some of his perspectives and arguments, but they are guaranteed to make you think, and often you would find it difficult to combat them. Here is a historian who is ready to challenge some of our most established beliefs, but not because he believes in the opposite ideology, but because he sees all such cultural artifacts with equal skepticism and detachment. This book can expand anyone's intellectual horizon. I am glad I read it!
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (*****)
by Yuval Noah Harari
I had just finished his earlier book, Sapiens, and loved it. When I started reading this one I thought he is mostly repeating the earlier text, which is not so uncommon after a big hit, when the publishers try to convince the author to churn out another book while the iron is still hot, without much new to say. I was completely wrong. This book is full of equally intriguing and compelling ideas, if not more. Most books on the future of humankind dwells on technological extrapolations and then either rejoice the possibility of a fantastic future, or scare us with a dystopian image. This book stays mostly away from specific technological possibilities, but instead analyzes the current state of science and technology philosophically, and imagine where it might lead to. As in his earlier book, no cherished idea is sacrosanct, and he has the courage and intellectual curiosity to look at everything with the same dispassionate eyes of logic, be it capitalism, fascism, communism, or liberal humanism. It is a very refreshing book that forces us to look at familiar things with new and questioning eyes.
by Jane Austen
Exit West (**)
by Mohsin Hamid
It is a pity to see a wonderful idea spoiled by poor literary quality. The characters are shallow, emotions predictable, and thoughts mundane. There was so much potential in the idea of portals appearing everywhere...
The Handmaid's Tale (****)
by Margaret Atwood
All That Man Is (*****)
by David Szalay
It is collection of nine stories, sometimes loosely connected, about nine men, starting with a man who is seventeen and ending with a man in his mid seventies. It is a merciless and penetrating probe into what it is to be a contemporary urban man. It is about the pointless banality of our lives, our awkward desires and our doubtful ambitions. But is is also about our tragic quest to find some meaning in everything we do, while always knowing that life is transient and pointless. As the book slowly moved towards protagonists who are at the same stage of life as I am, I was bracing myself as I did not know what I will see in that mirror...
House of Leaves (****)
by Mark Z. Danielewski
The only thing I can confidently say about this book is that you have not read anything like this. Yes, it is that unique. Therefore my first reaction was that of complete surprise, and I was mesmerized by it's formal structure, it's narrative style, and even by the use of typography and page layout. While that held my attention, I was also mildly suspicious that the author is trying too hard to impress us. Once I was done, I realized that in spite of its self indulgence, there is something very deep that wrapped around my mind, put me in a trance, and changed me in some strange and subtle way. It felt like coming out of a drugged state or a strange nightmare, but the dream continues even after you are awake. I think this effect is very personal, and each reader will see their own life through the distorting mirror of this novel.
A Gentleman in Moscow (***)
by Amor Towles
Crime and Punishment (****)
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I broke my own rule and reread a book that I loved many decades ago. Since then my love and admiration for Dostoyevsky has only grown, but I have also gotten older, and did not find this novel as exciting and transformative as some of his other books. While it carries his most essential quality - a penetrating and timeless dissection of the human condition, it seemed a little contrived to me. Therefore, I should try to stick to my own rule-- not to reread a book if I loved it at some point in time. It is better to remember the old memories, like a song heard a long time ago.
The Idiot (****)
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (****)
by Jonathan Haidt
How can I not fall in love with a book that pushes me to look at the world in a different way; a book that made me feel a little uncomfortable. This is definitely one such book. Very briefly, it tries to understand human morality in terms of evolutionary traits, reduce them to six basic factors, and then tries to map our political inclinations into this six-dimensional space. It also tries to understand our religiosity in terms of these basic moral traits. His arguments are strong and convincing, but it can easily rub against the grain of your political beliefs, especially if you have a left leaning like many of us. However, that is the whole point of this book – to look at our political belief systems in terms of our human nature, as a scientist, and not as a political partisan. It made me better understand why I believe what I believe, and reduced the certainly I earlier had that my decisions were based on impeccable reasoning. In that sense it is a very humbling experience to confront the evidence and realize that we are not as smart as we think. I can see why some people read it as a justification of the conservative agenda, but I didn’t have that problem. I didn’t feel that the author is taking a particular side other than exposing what he has discovered. The book may also help dispel the often held notion that the people on the other side of the political spectrum are either stupid or evil.
I don’t think these six attributes he discovered are truly sacrosanct. Maybe these are not the real categories, maybe there are more than six of them, but that is really not that important. What is important is that this is a very plausible way of understanding the moral, political, and religious differences we see in the world. I am also not convinced by his argument about why he believes that these traits evolved genetically and not memetically through culture. Either way, the conclusions do not change. I also felt his attack on the neo-atheist group (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens etc.) was unnecessary. The only difference of opinion between them is whether religion could have played some useful role in our evolution or not. Once again, whichever side you take on this debate, the conclusions do not change.
This book is often used by the neo-conservative groups to advance their agenda. I think it is wise not to let that cause an allergic reaction. There is enough good thinking here, and we should be able to ignore the political intentions of some group, or even that of the author, if he has one, and focus on the argument it presents.
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (*****)
by Thomas Mann
It is one of those rare novels that had the capacity to let me jump space, time, and social class and could place me in the middle of an upper class north German family in the eighteenth century, and I felt I knew them all, knew them intimately, all four generations of them.
"The sad thing is that one lives but once—one can't begin life over again. And one would know so much better the second time!"
The Portrait of a Lady (***)
by Henry James
Men Without Women (***)
by Haruki Murakami
I, like many others, is not comfortable putting a rating number to a work of art. However, as a participant in Goodreads I break my own rule for a very selfish reason. I use Goodreads primarily as a tool to get suggestions about the next book to read, and here the star-ratings given by friends I trust comes very handy. And since I take advantage of this practice, I feel compelled to reciprocate and contribute my opinions to the mix.
Rating a Novel is one thing, but rating a collection of short stories is a very different matter, and much harder. Each story in a collection is like a unique relationship. One can fall in love with one story and be totally indifferent towards another. Averaging all these separate impressions could be a rather distasteful exercise.
I happen to be a Murakami admirer, and have loved many of his works, but not all. The same goes for this collection. I fell in love with the last story in the collection, one that shares the name of the title. It touched me deeply at a very personal level and resonated with some of my deepest emotions. In my life I have always felt lonely, and this story gave my loneliness a certain voice. From now on, when I will remember this book, I will probably only remember this story. If I had to rate this story, I would have no hesitation to call it a 5-star. However, there are stories in here that are just average. So my final rating is the effect of many ordinary stories trying to pull down a masterpiece.
Lord of the Flies (***)
by William Golding
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (****)
by J.D. Vance
So little do we understand other people. Yet, in our infinite pride and audacity we believe we know them, and form comfortable ideological models to explain away their lives, their behavior, their politics. This book would teach many of us a lesson in humility, and remind us that all lives are complex beyond our grasp, and we cannot even dream of understanding another group unless we can truly respect their reality.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (****)
by Arundhati Roy
I have been waiting for this book for two decades, and that alone can be the recipe for disappointment. I am glad it survived that tough test and managed to surprise me as God of Small Things did twenty years ago. But it did so in a very different way.
Like her earlier novel, it is hard to categorize. But unlike her earlier book, this is a little easier to summarize. In my humble opinion, art that can be summarized does not stay with us for that long. Only time will tell if I am right this time. She creates a world that is intimate and familiar on one hand, while being remote and utterly strange at the same time. This world, made of many little stories and innumerable characters, are held together by her magical prose. What I liked most is the moral complexity of this world -- it doesn't try to simplify the complexity of modern India and all its inner conflicts.
A History of Western Philosophy (*****)
by Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell wrote this book in 1945, but it still remains totally relevant. Anyone interested in Western Philosophy will greatly benefit from this book, as it doesn't just provide a chronological account of what happened, but places each philosopher in their social and historical context. However, it is not a neutral account, but rather a critical analysis of philosophy from one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. The book is neither short nor easy to read, but the effort is more than rewarded by the brilliance of Russell.
The Sympathizer (*****)
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
A surprising and remarkable debut novel about the Vietnam war. Anything I have read or seen on this is usually written from one ideological perspective or another. This is the first book I have read that exists on both sides, or rather it goes beyond both and asks more universal questions that are both heartfelt and essential. I would strongly recommend this book.
At a personal level it reminded me of my high school days in Calcutta where I marched in protests where the chant was "aamaar naam, tomar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam" (my name, your name, Vietnam, Vietnam). I was not even sure where Vietnam was on the map, but the idea that a small group of poor people can challenge the biggest power was enough to cause goosebumps.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (****)
by Robert M. Sapolsky
It is common these days to come across people who have developed a strong dislike for all reductionist approaches. They prefer holistic views, and are suspicious of any knowledge that has been derived through breaking up a big problem into smaller chunks. I can understand why they feel that way, but I have always felt that such feelings can only be harbored when one is unfamiliar with the depth of the subject in question, and therefore assumes a simplistic view of things. For example, I know of many people who are suspicious of normal medical science because it treats each organ as a separate functional entity, and expertise within the medical profession is divided by such narrow specializations. They prefer a medical science that looks at the big picture, which includes not just the various sub-systems, but combines the body with the mind. This is a wise and noble thought until we realize the complexity of the whole system. Once we do, the justification of breaking it up into smaller systems become obvious. All the knowledge we have about our body could not have been attained without first breaking it up into the various organs and trying to understand how they work in isolation. Once that has reached a certain level of details can we afford to put them back together and investigate the far more complex interactions between these systems. If we tried to bypass the reductionist step in the first place, we would have been stuck with vague and faulty theories of how the body works, as can be found in all ancient texts. A responsible form of holistic science cannot be rushed. In many cases we may not even be ready to take that step, and must wait till we have better understanding of the parts.
Of all the systems we have investigated so far, the physical systems of materials and forces, chemical systems, astronomical systems, and biological systems – they all yielded fairly well to the scientific reductionist methodologies. However, the biggest challenge lies ahead in understanding the most complex system we have encountered so far – our mind. Huge progress has been made in this direction in the last few decades. The progress happened through advances in neuroscience, biology, computational science, evolutionary sciences, psychology etc. Problems that were beyond any convincing and demonstrable theory are regularly being converted into understandable bits of knowledge. In this environment of tremendous progress, where all the different branches seems to be converging, it is not unexpected that many specialists start to believe that they have finally figured it out. I have read many books where brilliant minds would try to prove how their specialty, be it neuroscience or evolutionary biology, can finally explain our behavior, our morality, our aesthetic sense, etc. in terms of their science alone.
This book is the only one I have read that not only celebrates the great accomplishments of our reductionist approach towards understanding of how the mind works, but also exposes the severe limitations of not appreciating the complexity of all these subsystems when they work together. He systematically shows how each of the systems involved, our neuronal bran, the environment we live in, both in our mother’s womb and the environment outside, our endocrinal systems, our genes, how they all interact and influence each other is incredibly complex ways. The only way we can understand the whole thing is when we allow for these interactions. In other words, why we need to look at the whole thing holistically, while admitting that it can only be done when we understand the parts really well. It is a sobering document because it shows the challenge that lies ahead. Modelling the complexity of the whole system is so complex then we may never be able to crack it open. That is, understanding of an individual mind may remain impossible, while we get better at understanding them in aggregate.
The real value of this book is not just in convincing us that full understanding of our mind cannot happen until we integrate all the pieces together, but in nudging us towards a slightly different mindset that can be applied to all complex problems. As in everything else, when we solve one problem, it only presents us with an even more complex problem. And to me, that’s what makes life worth living – that there will never be a shortage of things to ponder.
The Waves (*****)
by Virginia Woolf
I just started reading The Waves again. I finished reading it an hour ago. That may be the best way I can describe this novel. There are very few books I have read that compelled me to read it again almost immediately, and I am not sure if this will be my last read. That is not because the book is hard, but because it will cast a hypnotic spell on you; because you will discover something important in every sentence; because there is too much to absorb in a single read; because it will speak to you in a new way; because it may wake you up from a deep slumber that we call life; because you feel there is perhaps more to life than you have seen so far; because of your intense desire to wrap your life in a round story; because you were fortunate to have good friends; and because you feel you are all alone.
There is no story here, but a series of monologues from six friends, spread over their lifetime. Nothing happens, other than the news of the death of their friend Percival. Each character talks about their own self and of their friends. Interspersed between these monologues is the description of a sea shore from dawn to dusk that is evocative beyond anything I can imagine. While reading this book, it is hard to believe that the book was written more than 80 years ago. It feels so contemporary in its form and content. It is also hard to call it prose, as the language is pure poetry.
I want you to experience this book, as it may change you in unexpected ways. However, I cannot say if you are ready for this book yet. I know I was not ready for it a few years ago. You have to be in a state where you can clearly distinguish between solitude and loneliness, and enjoy silence. You need a moonless night to see on your hand the faint light of the stars, that left a million years ago. It is not a book that has answers, but it might make you ask questions that you never asked before.
The Nix (****)
by Nathan Hill
After a long time I read a book that I can easily classify under the category of unputdownable. Nathan Hill proved, in his very first novel, that he is one of the finest story tellers out there. It has the pace of a thriller, but it has the intellectual depth of a thought provoking serious book -- a rare combination indeed. The structure of the narration is complex, but he manages to keep it very easy to follow. Sometimes the colors feel a little too saturated and the events a little larger than life, but they rarely cross the line of credibility.
It has a wide canvas, moving from a small rural town in Iowa, to Chicago during the 1968 riots, in the background of Vietnam war, to a Norwegian small town, and life inside an immersive video game. Ultimately the complexly woven story raises profound questions about the absurdity of the world we live in, the choices we make, how often these choices are made for petty reasons, and yet these small turns can magnify over time, changing our entire lives. They are like enchanted pebbles that we can pick casually, but their weight increases over time, ultimately crushing us under their oppressive weight. After completing the book, my mind wondered, thinking of all the choices I made and the pebbles I picked up that feel so heavy today.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (****)
by Oscar Wilde
A recent review by a friend reminded me that I have never read this famous book. I came out with somewhat mixed feelings. From a historical perspective it is remarkable to find such a book coming out of the Victorian society. Two of the main characters in the novel either preach or practice hedonistic philosophies. While hedonism, as part of the utilitarian philosophy, predates the writing of this novel by almost a hundred years, it took a lot of courage to throw such irreverent philosophy in the face of the English upper class during the Victorian era. Consequently, the book received tremendous criticism and moral outcry.
The most remarkable quality of this novel is the plot device it uses, that of an ever changing painting, while the human character stays unchanged. In that sense it is comparable in style with novels written many decades later.
The part that I could not appreciate is the relative simplicity with which the characters and events are portrayed. As a result many of the actions of the main characters lack credibility, and their behaviors seem rather one-dimensional. It almost feels like the writer decided on a plot line and made the characters do what he needed them to do, rather than letting complex emotional logic decide their actions. In other words, I found the story a little too contrived.
Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed the witty language, and the cynical remarks by Lord Henry, they sometimes lacked philosophical honesty, and seemed to have been coined for their shock value and instant witty appeal. This may have been intentionally done by Wilde, so I cannot hold it against the novel.
Even though I could not whole heartedly praise this novel, I would have missed something if I didn't read it.
Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future (****)
by Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson
The largest media company in the world, Facebook, does not create any of its media. The largest transportation company in the world, Uber, does not own a single car. The largest accommodation company in the world, Airbnb, does not own a single building. The world’s largest retailer, Alibaba, does not own a single warehouse. That’s how the book starts and immediately grabs our attention that something very strange is going on in the business world. In the rest of the book the authors gradually expose various aspects of what they call the second machine age, and does it with precision and lucidity. Unlike most other books in this genre, it does not unnecessarily fatten it up with endless examples, and treats its readers with adequate respect, while still making it accessible to non-technical readers. It is not only a great read for people in the business, but I think anyone living in today’s world would find the book insightful and extremely engaging.
The Glass Bead Game (****)
by Hermann Hesse
While judging fictional books, among many other things, I use an informal dimension that I could call Canal-Stream measure. At one end are books where the author made an intellectual decision to follow a certain course that would lead to a definite thesis. The author is very deliberate about getting there, and does not care as much, or fails to cover the linear path. As a result the water gets to all the right places but the edges look unnatural and a little too straight, like a canal. At the other end are works where the path looks far more natural, following the natural and complex logic of human behavior. In these books it remains unclear if the author had a definite destination in mind, but seems to enjoy the ride, wherever it may take the reader. It is not a question of good or bad, but how they attempt to touch the mind of the reader. In the first case the effect is far more intellectual, and it may succeed in sculpting our thinking in a very intentional way. The other affects us emotionally, and is often more effective in opening new doors. One thing for sure, the ‘stream’ books have a much greater long term effect on my mind. However, that is not to say that I do not have favorite books that lean towards the ‘canal’ end of the spectrum. The Glass Beads Game, in my opinion, is a 'canal' kind of novel.
This book came to me with glowing praise from a few friends whose taste I have come to trust and respect. Therefore, my expectations were sky high, which is often not a good place to start. I came out very conflicted, and therefore this write-up may turn out to reflect that.
The Glass Bead Game creates a beautiful and lyrical dream world set in a future a few hundred years out, where the world has just recovered from a long period of war and confusion, and created a small province, Castalia, where the pace of life is slow, and everyone there lives a life of the mind. These are deep thinkers, musicians, mathematicians, and Glass Bead players. It is a mysterious game that uses a very expressive symbolic language in which it is equally easy to express the structure of a piece of music or a fragment of a mathematical thought. The book follows the life of Joseph Knecht, a master Glass Bead Game player. The novel happens in two distinct worlds – lyrical and idealistic Castalia, and outside that is the real world with all its fast pace, confusion, and greed.
Hesse is not a science fiction writer, and it was not his intention to create one. Therefore, the future world he created does not have the predictive quality that you may expect in a book set in the future, and does not resemble the actual world we live in. His questions are philosophical, and to some extent timeless. Like all great works of literature, it is almost impossible to summarize what Hesse is trying to say in the book. It is dazzlingly multi-faceted, and thus open to many interpretations.
Hesse’s world view is not that of mine. He is a little too mystic and spiritual for my taste. Yet, he succeeded in me paying very close attention to the thoughts and actions of his characters who behaves and thinks in ways very different from mine. That, I think, is the greatest quality of this book. However, there are numerous things in this book that either disappointed me or didn’t agree with my taste. Following is a random set of thoughts that went through my head while reading this book. It does not present any coherent view, and does not have the discipline of a scholarly review – just some scattered thoughts…
One of the central assumption that runs through the book is that all knowledge and understanding can ultimately be reduced down to a common center. Modern day physicists have the same dream in the form of a Theory of Everything, and even that idea is often challenged within the Physics community. However, the center that Hesse implies is not that of a TOE, but something mysterious and inexplicable – something magical. I too like magic, as long as I know that magic is not real. I like the magic of a beautiful sunset, not because I do not understand what is going on, but in spite of that. While watching the sunrise when I experience that transcendental feeling, I do not think of it as true magic, but rather something that we will eventually fully understand and know why our mind produces such a feeling. The kind of mystery that Hesse seems to prefer are magical in the true sense of the term. That is these are things that are beyond the reach of natural sciences and cannot be understood by reason alone. Personally, I am not persuaded by such thinking, and I find them unappealing to my taste. I know this is a personal choice, and others may not be disturbed by the idea that some things might be entirely outside the reach of rational enquiry.
There are many hints throughout the book that all types of special sciences, things outside of mathematics and music theory, are somehow more prosaic and a little too pragmatic. It seems like Hesse is limiting special sciences to empirical sciences. The book was written long after the major breakthroughs in theoretical physics, namely both forms of relativity and quantum mechanics. These are purely conceptual in nature, and should be at the same level of abstraction as mathematics. Yet, Hesse either was not aware of these sciences or intentionally side stepped them. In the introduction it says that the language of the Glass Bead Game can express all branches of special sciences, yet later on we only see references to mathematics and music, and oddly questionable things such as the ancient patterns of a Chinese house, astrological signs, etc., almost implying that these are intellectually meaningful concepts. He seems to be to enamored by ancient things, to the point of making them sacrosanct, and indifferent about anything that is modern.
It is very strange that he never mentions that women can also have an intellectual life. I can understand not allowing women into Castalia as a literary plot choice, as that would have introduced things in the story that could distract away from the main theme. However, there is no mention anywhere that women can have intellectual lives, even outside Castalia. Also in the three short stories in the end, the women characters are only portrayed as potential distractions for the men pursuing a life of the mind. This is not a novel written in the middle ages but in modern times, when there was no shortage of female intellectuals. So, I don’t know what he was thinking and how this can be justified.
I fully understand why it was impossible for Hesse to actually describe the Glass Bead Game, but I was hoping he would be a little clearer to what extent these games are logical constructs or imaginary vignettes. It also talks about the role music played in the design of games, but it wasn’t clear to me if the intent of a game is to analyze music by their logical/mathematical structure, or are these new musical compositions written in the language of the game. In other words, are games more analysis or synthesis? To me these are not idle questions, but changes the whole motivation that drives the players.
Finally, he could not imagine the role information technology would play in the future. The entire Glass Bead Game would be profoundly affected by the presence of powerful information processing machines. There is also no mention of cognitive sciences being part of the Glass Bead Game language and vocabulary, as that could introduce many interesting self-referential and recursive twists.
I think if you are spiritually inclined you will love the book. Since I am not, I was far less impressed.
Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (*****)
by Max Tegmark
While talking about this book, physicist Stephen Hawking said "This is the most important conversation of our time, and Tegmark's thought-provoking book will help you join it." I would strongly urge everyone not to ignore this conversation, as this could very well be the most consequential topic we have today that involves the entire human kind. At least read this book and then decide for yourself if you agree.
Most of us are concerned about Global Warming. We are concerned about the use of nuclear and biological weapons. We worry about genetic engineering. But discussions about future of Artificial Intelligence, and especially the eventual emergence of Super-intelligence are rare and generally get mixed up with science fiction scenarios and cheap movie plots. Yet, there is a finite probability that this can cause devastation to humanity in a time frame that is nearer than any other known risks, and far deeper than any other factor we can imagine. On the other hand, if used properly, AI can be the ultimate future of all living intelligence, and our only hope to persist in this universe in the long run.
Personally, this topic is very close to me. I did my Ph.D. in Machine Learning, but I didn't academically pursue that path for too long, however I tried to stay in touch with the major advances in AI. During the last 10 years I took a deep interest in Consciousness research and the possibility of Super-Intelligence. In my life as an artist I created a series a couple of years ago which, incidentally, was named "life 2.0", and dealt with the same topic.
There have been many books written on this subject, and major academic research is happening, but Tegmark's book is unique because instead of just raising alarms, it is trying to do something about it. It is an optimistic book that tries to show that we can hope be on the driver's seat and guide this towards something wonderful, but only if we all try to first understand the nature of the problem, and then try to find solutions that can guide us to evolve AI in a responsible way. Just wishing the harms away cannot work unless we know how to avoid it, and that is the focus of this remarkable book.
His approach is that of a physicist -- rational, measured, cautious, and mostly unbiased. Unlike other books in this genre, he did not put his money on a particular scenario. Instead, he tried to explore all the proposed alternatives and evaluate them for their plausibility and consistency. Even when tackling explosive topics such as consciousness or free-will, he does an excellent job of laying down all the various alternative opinions, and then gradually analyze them in terms of fundamental physical laws.
This is the first time I have seen someone is talking about this enormous issue not just as a threat, but rather as a solvable problem, and he approaches it as an activist -- full of passion and conviction. He has used his persuasive logic and passion to form a formidable scientific organization, and have also managed to create a substantial research fund, through funding from major sources.
The only thing that I didn't appreciate are the fictional segments he often used to illustrate various scenarios. I have nothing against the use of fictional illustrations, as they can often allow one to reach a wider audience. However, his skills as a story teller is far weaker than his ability to reason.
In conclusion, it is a remarkably well written book, and an extremely important one. I strongly believe every intelligent and responsible human being should join this conversation now, and this is perhaps the best stepping stool to get into this topic.
The Collected Stories (****)
by Lydia Davis
Lots of stories, but almost nothing happens. Many stories just a sentence long. Lydia Davis has the ability to take us on a tour into other people's mind - uneventful, but dense with complexities that feel familiar and distant at the same time.
The Sarah Book (*****)
by Scott McClanahan
"There is only one thing I know about life, if you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself". That's how this book starts.
Everything meaningful is ultimately about loss, and the rest is about the fear of losing things that we hold close to our heart. We even lose things that we never really had in the first place. This book is a primal scream that reminds us of this ultimate tragedy. It is a book about love, and inevitably about loss. No other book I've read in recent times made me so sad, but it did it without any sentimentality, without any tragic plot twists, but simply by being brutally honest. It felt like an indifferent freight train that ran through the characters in the novel, and didn't spare the readers either.
I don't think you have read anything like this before. The simple short sentences stings us with a ferocity that's incomparable and brutal. I wanted to jump into the pages and save the character from ruining all that was beautiful in his life, and then realized I need to save myself too.
The Piano Tuner (***)
by Daniel Mason
The Martian (***)
by Andy Weir
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (*****)
by Jules Verne
I made up my mind a while ago not to revisit any book that I loved in my youth. My experience told me that more often than not, they don’t live up to the heightened expectations created in childhood, and spoils a beautiful memory. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one such book, and I took a huge chance by deciding to read it again.
This time I was not disappointed. The book that opened so many windows of imagination for me when I was very young, did it again after so many decades. When I first read it, I had not seen a single film on underwater life, and television was just a word. This book allowed me to imagine a world, totally unknown to me. Today we are all saturated by underwater imagery, but Verne could still create his magic. Of course I had to constantly remind myself that this was written in 1870 – long before anyone had seen this world.
It was interesting to note how often the characters in this book suffered from nineteenth century ideas of colonial supremacy. It is generously sprinkled with words such as “savages” and “barbaric” when referring to most non-white people. The characters who were desperately eager to escape their imprisonment on this submarine waited until they were near European or American shores. Even Belgians were considered not sufficiently civilized to appreciate philosophical or cultural subtleties. All this made me wonder again, how many things we believe in or do now that will seem absurdly wrong a hundred years from now.
The Remains of the Day (*****)
by Kazuo Ishiguro
I had watched the film many years ago, and apart from the stupendous acting of the two main characters, I wasn't particularly impressed. Therefore, it took a Nobel Prize to encourage me to read the novel. I would have been poorer if I didn't. This is one of the most subtle, sensitive, and deeply moving book I have read in recent times. After finishing the book the thought that percolated through my mind for a long time is that our true humanity is only visible through all of our faults and follies. Beneath our outer skin of duty, responsibility, and correctness are the thousand cracks through which our humanity leaks out. Our only salvation lies in letting it flow. As we walk towards the end of our time, the urgency increases not to hide our faults, because it is these faults that allow us to be complete as an honest and sensitive human being.
Sons and Lovers (***)
by D.H. Lawrence
The Rainbow (Brangwen Family #1) (****)
by D.H. Lawrence
Women in Love (***)
by D H Lawrence
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (*****)
by Thomas S. Kuhn
Even though I could not agree with with everything this book has to say, but it certainly made me think of the history of science in a new way. Very few books have the power to alter one's thinking, and this is definitely one of them. If you are interested in history or philosophy of science, then this is a must read.
How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (*****)
by Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil has a brilliantly clear and logical mind, and he uses that effectively to write text that makes complex arguments sound easy, and makes reading a joy. This is a great book to hear the arguments for human-like machine intelligence, and why it may happen fairly soon. It does not matter which side of the fence you sit, this book is an essential read. I personally believe this will happen sooner than most of us expect, and I also believe this is perhaps the most important conversation we can have today as it will affect every single human being on the planet profoundly.
by Andy Weir
The Buried Giant (***)
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro's first novel, and perhaps not his best, but there are moments that lingered in my mind and I had to share with my loved ones. Especially the island where older couples want to go, but the boatman only takes one across, while the other is left behind. No one ever returns from there, but they also don't meet the others who went before. Everyone roams alone forever...