Holiday 2011-2012 reading

Posted on January 18, 2012

Last updated on February 28, 2013

This winter break, I have made it a promise to myself to catch up on reading on some books I’ve been wanting to read for some time. That goal was achieved, and I’ve read some interesting books I would like to share with you. Beforehand though, I would like to discuss Goodreads, and the Amazon Kindle.

Goodreads is a very good book tracking service that I was recently showed by my friend. If you would like to see my up to date reading, here is a goodreads link! I encourage you to make a profile yourself. As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets managed” - if you keep track of the books you are reading, and show this off to your friends and the world, you will have a natural inclination to read more and fill up your profile. Goodreads allows you to have a detailed a view of books/pages/whatever read per month/year, or any imaginable combination. Just looking at those charts, you want those numbers to get higher and read more books! The ability to see what your friends are reading, makes reading, an activity that’s unfortunately declining in popularity giving place to mentally debilitating glowing square rectangles, a social experience! If I see a friend of mine is reading with a certain frequency, I certainly don’t want to be worse, and try to catch up! While a very good service, Goodreads, for me, is more a means to an end - a tool to “measure” and thus “manage” my reading habits, and get me to read more books!

In the above paragraph I bash on glowing rectangles and the dumbing effect they induce, yet all the books that I will discuss today, I have read on a marvel of technology, the Amazon Kindle. Let us discuss the difference between the Kindle and other currently available gadgetry. While holding an iPad or an iPhone, you can see that what you have is a huge technological advancement, allowing you everything from playing games, checking email, watching videos, or wasting time in a variety of methods - all on a small glowing screen on a device that fits into your pocket. Such devices introduce concepts unheard of 10 or 20 years ago, such as the aforementioned 24/7 access to streaming videos on a device in your pocket. While I love my iPad and iPhone and find that they have become ubiquitous in my daily life, that in a way, I’m robbed of my time by trying for the 100th time to complete the very last challenge on Tiny Wings.

Now we introduce the Kindle - a device that provides a paradigm shift in a concept we are already familiar with, that is, reading of written text. We’ve been producing and consuming written text for hundreds of years, and all the Kindle does, is it utilizes modern technology to provide a change in how we do this specific task. This is unlike many other devices, which create new use cases for scenarios unheard of before. Before the Kindle, I bought an iPad, and one of the reasons I justified the purchase to myself, was “I will read more books”. Surprisingly, this worked, and I read around 20 books on the iPad - it has changed my attitude to reading, and educated me a fair bit. But just around a month ago, I purchased a Kindle, and was totally blown away by the device. At a weight of just around 200 grams, you get to store and read the knowledge of around a 1000 books. Imagine what that would weigh, and how much space it would occupy. I believe that a large part of the reason why I haven’t read much before the iPad/Kindle, is the sheer annoyance of a physical factor book. You have to either order it online, and wait for a couple of days, or physically go to a shop, and hope that it’s available. After that, you have a large book, which is a pain to carry, move, or take on holidays, especially if you want to take ten or more books! I believe that education is the most important endeavour we should thrive for, and the Kindle brings literary education to people who were beforehand reluctant to it. Today, I go on the tube in London, and see many people staring at their Kindles and extending their literary education. You obviously still see people sitting in their Dr Dre branded headphones listening to rap and blankly staring at air molecules, but I am very happy to see that along with me, Amazon is changing not only the reading paradigm, but also the reading quantity - for just 89 pounds, you have a world of books open to you.

The Kindle, with its natural screen and only one feature, reading books, does not feel at all like a mental burden (which all the smartphones feel a little like). It is the Kindle which kept me reading over the holidays. If I wanted to bring all those books in paperback, my luggage would most likely consist mostly of paper! If you don’t have one yet, I encourage you to get a Kindle. Now, I’ll quickly discuss and write a brief note on each of the books I’ve read these holidays.

1 LSD: My Problem Child

I haven’t read the full biography of Steve Jobs yet (I’m midway), but from what I’ve read, and from some articles online I’ve seen, Steve Jobs was a proponent of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. I have seen him quoted as taking LSD being “one of the most important decisions in his life”. Doing some ‘argumentum ad verecundiam’, or argument from authority, I thought what better way to learn more about the development and influence of psychedelic drugs, than reading the memoir of the inventor of LSD, Albert Hoffman. If you are not interested in the fact that LSD is an ergot alkaloid, or in general the chemistry of it, you can skip some initial parts which go into quite a bit of detail on the chemistry behind it, and how Albert’s research on ergot eventually managed to produce the potent LSD-25. The reader gets a very interesting account of the first time LSD was ever used - the time when Dr Hoffman accidentally ingested a minute amount of LSD, and went home on a bike with his lab assistant, having hallucinations along the way and all night long - thinking that the neighbour is an evil witch among many others.

Albert then discusses some more history of LSD, and other psychedelics such as mescaline. We hear some more stories of people ingesting such psychedelics and their experiences. It was in general a very interesting account of the history and influence of LSD on the world. Next up on my reading list in this category is Huxley’s ‘Doors to Perception’!

2 The Prince

A well known work by Niccolo Machiavelli, and read as part my plan to get more acquainted with the classical and older books. The books discusses the many ways a ‘Princedom’ can be ran, and many effective ways of doing so. I have seen comments regarding how the book encourages tyranny and dictatorship, and there is some truth to that. You can feel that, even when democracy is discussed, the author is still mostly concentrated on how this provides a better princedom in the view of the prince, and not in the view of the people. In way, democracy was portrayed more as a means of control by the prince, and of keeping the populace happy.

Even if you are not interested in such political books (I’m not particularly interested), I would still recommend reading this relatively short piece.

3 You are not so smart

A non-fiction book discussing the fallacies our brains fall prey to, such as believing we can actually remember past events down to minute details, or many of us fail at a simple logic game. Even though I was aware of many of the mentioned topics, I still found it quite interesting. If you would like to learn a bit about human psychology, you could spend an evening with this book.

4 Of Mice and Men

A classic that was on my to-read list. I wasn’t particularly captivated by the story-line or the story-telling, but that is most probably because I was never good in English class and at analyzing themes and passages of such books. This book looks like one that would fit perfectly well for analyzing in English class, but I disliked reading it for pleasure.

5 Technological Slavery

This is a book written by the now infamous Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. You might think my choice of reading works of a person who has taken so many lives and is in prison is quite odd, but I stand by the teaching that one can learn something from everyone, and one should let even Ted Kaczynski explain his reasoning and thought process. Only then will you be able to rationally analyze his actions.

I’ll begin by saying that I learned that Ted Kaczynski was an immensely smart person. He got his PhD in Mathematics (if you are brave enough…) at a very early age, and became the youngest maths professor at Harvard. Tired of the daily city life, Ted moved to a forest cabin in Alaska, and lived there self-sufficiently for a number of years, when one day his mentality snapped after seeing trees destroyed in the name of building new roads. This was the event that created the Unabomber.

The book itself opens with a copy of the widely read and known “Industrial Society and its Future”, the memoir of Ted that was published in newspapers, and incidentally the memoir that got him caught. The theme throughout is that we are heading in the wrong direction that will lead to self-annihilation, that all technological progress should be stopped, and that we should go back to a hunter-gather type of lifestyle.

The rest of the book is Ted’s expansion of ideas on the evils of industrialised nations, along with many letters between him and his contact outside who helped him with writing and publishing of the book. Reading this, you again see that Ted is a very well educated man, and even with the limited access to books and knowledge that he has in prison, he always tries his best to use rational logical argument, and cite his sources. We begin to question how such a well educated person came to the conclusions that he came to, and whether there is any truth in them. He is definitely not a simple criminal who simply sends bombs, but a very intelligent man who had specific reasons for his unfortunately tragic actions.

To an extent, I do believe that technology is dumbing us down, and possibly killing us (WiFi…), and that with the current way civilization is moving forward, we might very possibly self-annihilate ourselves within the next couple of centuries, if not earlier. Looking at the progress in the last decade, Ted is missing a whole lot! I wonder what he would have to say about the Internet and our smartphones… As a computer scientist, and a person who mostly stares at glowing rectangles all day, I would definitely not want to get rid of my gadgets, but Dr Kaczynski makes some good points, and I do believe we should watch out for and be wary of the technological progress of mankind, and how it is turning against us.

6 Lolita

‘Lolita’ is the story of the infatuation of Humbert Humbert towards a 12 year old girl named Lolita. The book was at one point banned in some countries for obvious reasons, but now it stands as the best and most well known work of the Soviet author Vladimir Nabokov. The theme of the book may not appeal to some, but many would agree that Nabokov is brilliant with his choice of language (he wrote it himself in both English and Russian), and his descriptions of even the same person for the n-th time feel new and vibrant each time. The book does not even contain a single indecent or derogatory word, as rather than being a pornographic novel, its purpose is to explore the mind and let the reader feel the pain and the experiences Humbert Humber is going through.

Even if the theme does not appeal to you, I would encourage reading this even just for Nabokov’s brilliant language that’s a pleasure to read. You can followup by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film with the same title. As always, it is stripped down to the bare essentials, if not even more, for I did not feel as connected to Humbert Humbert, and did not feel his emotions as much as I did in the book.

7 The Giver

‘The Giver’ was the first in my batch of dystopian books these holidays. It is about a society with no emotions, and The Giver is the only person allowed to feel and have emotions. The inhabitants of the city described in ‘The Giver’ cannot see colour, have never seen snow or grassy hills, and have their whole lives predetermined by assigning jobs at a young age. Since this is more of a young adults book, it does not compare to the likes of ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’, but nevertheless presents some interesting ideas.

8 The Stranger

I have read this in my French class around 3 years ago, but considering my knowledge of French at the time, I’m sure I didn’t catch many of the plot details, hence I decided to reread it, this time in English. ‘The Stranger’ is probably Camus’s most well known work, and it is the story of a middle aged man in Algiers who, to the outside, seems totally uninterested in the world, apathetic, and pessimistic. The writing consists of short sentences, and staccato style, similar to the later described Candide. Camus goes through a lot of storyline in a short number of pages, yet without sacrificing the portrayal of the main character’s emotions. I will not spoil the ending, but I will say that the night I finished the book, I have dreamt the ending, which means the book had a substantial impact on me and my conscience.

9 Brave New World

The first work by Huxley I have read. I had it on my Kindle, but decided to read it after a recommendation by a friend. ‘Brave New World’ portrays us a utopian/dystopian (open to interpretation…) society where people are created in test-tubes in human factories, and then, until the teenage years, are conditioned with various propaganda in order to put them into a specific spot in the society’s well-defined caste system ranging from Alpha-Plus to Epsilon, Alpha-Pluses being the most intelligent people, and leaders of the society, while Epsilons, the most menial workers, such as trashmen. The conditioning comes in various forms, one main one being hypnopaedia, or sleep-learning. The newly ‘decanted’ humans are subjected every day to sleep-learning propaganda which ensures they believe they are eternally happy, and that their current caste is the best for them and nothing could be better for them. The point is to create a society where everyone is always happy - there are no crimes in this world, no social struggles, no wars, people are allowed and encouraged to have sex as often as with whomever they want. Sexual games are encouraged from a very early age. As in ‘The Giver’, emotions are abolished, and the ‘opium of the masses’ is ‘soma’, an invented drug that everyone craves, and believes is able to solve their problems, if they encounter any. If you have seen the movie Equilibrium (special effects are not that great, but I would highly recommend it for the theme and Christian Bale’s decent portrayal of a non-feeler converting to a person with emotions), ‘soma’ is similar to the drug ‘Prozium’ there, which is also distributed freely sought by the masses.

For me, the obvious question is whether such a society is a utopia or a dystopia. To me, this would depend on perspective and definition. If we define a utopia as a place where nearly everyone is happy, then surely the society in ‘Brave New World’ must be utopian. If we try to define ‘happy’, we see that this is quite subjective. The population in ‘Brave New World’ is conditioned from a very early to actually feel happiness, and believe that their current situation is the best possible situation, and that there is nothing better in this world for them. As portrayed in the book, we see that all people actually neurologically feel happy and believe everything is the best, even though that this was the result of the early age conditioning. Any change to the current environment would most probably be perceived as a worse situation, due to how powerful the propaganda implanted in everyone’s brain is. In this society, it is inconceivable to marry and have only one partner, so a change to such a system would be seen as decline in quality of life and as taking away of liberties taking for granted. For all the members of this society, their current world is the best possible world, and hence a utopia.

If an outsider, such as a reader who is a member of the current society in this world, inspects the society presented in the book, he might feel that this is a dystopia. Such a feeling is simply due to our upbringing and again, conditioning. We hold axiomatic beliefs that everyone should be able to freely experience emotion, and with hard work, be able to move up the societal ladder. This same person, if brought up with the conditioning in ‘Brave New World’, would hold as an axiom that they are happy, and if any doubt arises, they would self-willingly take ‘soma’. I like the freedom we have in this current world, but strongly believe, that if I were brought up in such a way as humans are in Huxley’s work, I would be constantly happy, and hence more happy than it this world, which has its ups and down.

For the above reasons, calling ‘Brave New World’ a dystopian novel can only be done from our point of a view of a different and more liberal society. I highly encourage you to read it, and form your own opinion.

10 1984

Right after reading ‘Brave New World’, I wanted to read Huxley’s analysis essays written 20 years after, ‘Brave New World Revisited’. In the first couple of pages, it made many references to ‘1984’, a work I haven’t read it, so to fully grasp it I decided to read ‘1984’ first.

‘1984’ is a very popular and analyzed a lot, and any of my attempts to discuss any of the themes would most likely be sub-par to whatever else you can find on the book.

I will say that ‘1984’ was definitely a powerful book, and unlike for ‘Brave New World’, I would definitely not want to live in the tyrannical world represented by Orwell. If you think that ‘Brave New World’ portrays a dystopia, just read and compare it to ‘1984’.

One powerful message and theme I got from the book, was the ability of torture to break your most basic axioms, and reprogram and rewire your brain. If you would not like some spoilers, don’t read ahead. We have two characters in love, and they promise that the one thing they will never betray is each other - that they may disclose any of their interactions, but that never will they break to the point where they will betray and stop loving each other. After subject to torture, both say that there a breaking point, that they snapped, and that at one point during the torture, they really would want the other person, the one whom they love, to be subjected to it, rather than them. In this way, they have both betrayed each other. This theme of the effect of torture, and the power of conditioning when the body and psyche is weak, was very interesting and particularly well described by Orwell.

This is a classic and an obvious ‘must-read’, and I would encourage everyone to read through ‘1984’.

11 Brave New World Revisited

Since this made connections to both ‘Brave New World’, and ‘1984’ (Orwell was one of Huxley’s students), I decided to only read it after reading both of the works.

In these analysis essays, Huxley looks at how the world has moved forward in the past 20 years since the writing of ‘Brave New World’. The conclusion is that we have moved faster than he anticipated towards a ‘Brave New World’, rather than ‘1984’, and that his view is that we will keep moving forward towards a kind of society displayed in his work. Most of the book is spent on analyzing different techniques and tools for spreading and perpetuating various propaganda. Huxley displayed how effective the radio and TV was already for propaganda during WWII, and how such tools for quickly disseminating information to the masses should form the basis of the armory of any propagandist. Too bad Huxley wasn’t alive to see the rise of the Internet…

I would say both ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’ are recommended reading before looking at ‘Brave New World Revisited’, or else you will be also on some of the topics discussed. If you don’t want to ready them, this book will at least introduce you to the theory of propaganda. Highly recommended reading after ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’.

12 Candide

Is our current world the best of all possible worlds ? I wasn’t exposed to Leibnizian optimism beforehand, and seeing that this is Voltaire’s satire of that topic, I probably did not understand many parts of the novel. For an explanation of what Candide is, you are better off looking at Wikipedia, but in essence, we follow the very adventourous and mostly filled with disasters, life of Candide, up until the end where he settles down and concludes that we should “cultivate our garden”. The writing style is quick and staccato, similar to the stranger, and definitely unlike ‘Lolita’. We get through a lot of story in just over a 100 pages, and that’s with the quick and to the point language.

I did get the essence of the books and Candide’s struggle to understand how on earth, with all these disasters happening, this could be the “best of all possible worlds”, but I assume that after reading up on the Leibnizian optimism beforehand, I could grasp some more concepts from the book.

On another one, the book has so many footnotes that reading it on the Kindle is a pain, requiring constant moving back and forth.

13 The Old Man and the Sea

A classic I saw some people recommend, but in all honesty, I did not find in engaging or interesting in any way. The story is about an old man who goes fishing, catches a big marlin, and on his way back struggles with shark who eat the whole marlin. Even though it’s already short, I think the book could still be shortened, and be left with the essence and message of “Don’t give up”. Read it, and form your own opinion, if you have a free afternoon.

14 Rich Dad, Poor Dad

This the final book in my holiday reading spree. It is a non-fiction about the techniques used the rich to get and stay rich, and how the poor and middle class stay in their middle class, even though they might be smarter than those from the rich class. The author’s “rich dad” is his best friend’s dad who taught his son and the author the art of putting yourself in the mindset of the rich, and hence getting to his position. The “poor dad” is the author’s real dad, an intelligent university professor following the well known dogmas of “get good grades, go to a good university, get a good job, retire at >60”.

The author explains how exactly one can put themselves into the mindset of the rich, and how to stay there. There are some good ideas in the book, but as the author says himself, he is “not a good writer, but a good salesman.”. Some advice, such as not diversifying your stock investment portfolio, or your house being a liability instead of an asset, is in my opinion not fully good advice. Or at least the author didn’t go enough into detail explaining what he meant.

If you are interested, you can read it, but the essence lies in disconnecting your income from your time, and investing all your money into money-generating assets instead of money-depleting liabilities.

15 Concluding Remarks

I congratulate you if you have gotten this far in reading my ramblings - I haven’t done enough writing, and a lot of this is meant as practice for me in the art of writing and communicating on paper, a valuable skill.

If you don’t, I urge you to buy a Kindle, as I believe it is a device that will drastically change your reading habits, and get you to read more books!

Please leave a comment if you have any questions or recommendations as to what I should read. Thanks for reading!

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