January – April 2012 Reading

Posted on April 12, 2012

Last updated on February 28, 2013

This is another one of my updates that looks at what I’ve been busy reading. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me the importance of exposing oneself to a wide and diverse set of literature. I’ve read that one should try to keep up a pace of a book to week, which leads to always having more fresh ideas, and prevents the staleness of the grey cells. I grew more fond of fiction also. I was a large proponent of non-fiction books, such as self-help, how-to, or biographies, and mostly dismissed fiction as a waste of time. Now I am finding out that from well written fiction, you can gain learn and gain life lessons more than from self-help/how-to books. I believe that the plot of a fiction book is something more realistic for us, something that we can relate to more and hence learn, than itemizations of what one should that are so prominent in many how-to books. In a fiction book, you can relate to the character, imagine the story is real, and feel the pain and happiness of the characters, and try to see how you would act in such and such situation. Many self-help/how-to books are too ‘dry’, and the given examples are short, and usually forget by the time we finish reading the book.

1 Quiet: The Power of introverts

Maybe I decided to read this as a form of self-validation, as after my many experiences of group work at university, I’ve learned to loathe it; but my experiences of group work at university are a whole another story, maybe for a different article.

Susan Cain, an introvert herself, tells us of a society where extroverts are praised and their qualities desired, while in fact, more creativity, output, and intelligence stems from introverts. It is the extrovert who is given the chance, in the eyes of the world becomes succesful, while the shy and reserved suffer for no apparent reason. Cain tells us of multitudes of studies showing that many times groupwork, when executed poorly, is inefficient - a brainstorming session in a group led to less output than when the individual members were asked to work by themselves, and then collaborate and merge their ideas. Many meetings are pointless, and the shout of the extroverts with poor ideas deafens the audience to the more intelligent remarks the reserved people usually have.

I would advise everyone to read it - extroverts to gain an understanding of the dichotomy, and introverts, to see what they can do to have their ideas heard. I am certain you will find a way to benefit from it.

2 Flow: Theory of optimal experiences

I read it as part of recommended reading for a course on computer game design. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist, and an expert on creativity, and flow - the ‘theory of optimal experiences’. You might have experienced flow - it is the feeling of utmost concentration, connection to your current task, disregard for anything else such as your surroundings or passing of time. Reaching this ‘flow’ is very beneficial - after such an episode, you will feel very rewarded, and happy from the achievement.

The book teaches you what exactly this feeling is, how it’s achieveable, and what the effects are. Do not think that this is a layman’s book written by some self-help guru. The claims are substantiated, and at times the work reads more like a research paper than a manual for the masses. Hopefully, after having read it, you will be able to find more meaning at the tasks you do, or try and find tasks for yourself that are able to create flow.

3 Ishmael

The titular Ishmael is a gorilla that holds conversations with the narrator. It explores the “myth” of human supremacy. We see how humans believe to be the most important on this world, how we take up land or kill other species. Daniel Quinn, the author, looks at the nomadic way of life that was prominent before the introduction of agricultural methods, and explores whether our move to a sedentary and agriculturural (and later, productionist, such as steel) lifestyle, was of benefit, not only to us, but to the rest of the inhabitans of this planet.

Highly philosophical novel, it’s written in dialogue form, for me, resembling a discussion such as those between Simplicio and Salviati in “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. I have read the book from recommendations on reddit, and I don’t say I regret it. I have had personal ideas similar to those expressed here, after reading Ted Kaczynski’s “Technological Slavery”. There, we also look at nomadic lifestyle, and the destruction to earth we, as a race, are bringing. I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like if the events from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” really took place, if we were faced with imminent destruction for our behaviour towards the environment and other inhabitants of Earth. As an introduction to such ideas, I would recommend “Ishmael”, along with “Technological Slavery”, and watching “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.

4 How to Win Friends and Influence People

The classic self-help book by Dale Carnegie. Thorough, with many examples - I am very everyone will find something that to aid them in social interactions in a world where interpersonal communication is such a valuable skill. At times I thought the usage of the techniques mentioned might make you think you are an egoist - you are applying said techniques usually for a personal gain. Is that what friend does ?

5 The Richest Man in Babylon

Another classic that by the use of parables, tries to teach us very simple maxims that lead to more money for you. Simple things, such as always put away at least 10% of all your earnings, think of the future, and put your money to work. No revolutionary ideas, or get-rich-quick schemes, but a very useful fiction book that will hopefully help many in their road to riches, or prevent others from falling into bankrupcy.

6 Hunger Games Trilogy 1, 2, 3

As you can imagine, not the height of literature, but the storyline was nevertheless interesting, and kept me reading, even though I knew I would not get anything out, or learn anything from the book. I was correct, no life lessons were learned. I decided to read it from the mere fact that it became so popular and I wanted to see what the fuss is about, and secondly because I wanted to see the movie, and it’s only fitting to first read the book and compare to the moving picture. The three books put together amount to around 1000 pages, but you should be able to read 1 book per day, and finish it quickly - it’s a very easy read.

The story is that of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager in District 12 of Panem, a collection of 12 districts where life is hard and rules strict, and the Capitol, the center of Panem, where rich inhabitans indulge themselves in all forms of pleasures; they also all look as if they were taken out of Wonderland. Each year, the Hunger Games are held - a teenage boy and girl are selected from each district via a raffle, and are force to battle to death until only one remains. All this is televised, and enjoyed by the citizens of Capitol, while the people in the districts watch with fear whether their children will be the one to surive.

The first part of the trilogy was the best. The second book moves at snails pace, and in the third one, you can’t even tell that the main character is actually required, and she seems very secondary to the again slow moving action. If you want to see what the fuss is about, by all means spend 3 afternoons reading this trilogy - you will have a good time, but don’t expect literary heights.

7 Brothers Karamazov

Probably the most serious book to date I have read. Very well known, it is the last novel of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I decided to have a go at it after hearing from a friend that it was one of the favourites of Einstein.

The story takes place in old Russia, and concerns three brothers: Aloysha, Dmitri, and Ivan Karamazov. You are taken on a (rather slowly moving) journey of the problems encountered by the three brothers. The book has everything - all possible human emotions (I’ve read somewhere that if you want to read only one fiction book, it should be this for this reason - it encapsulates the themes of so many other novels). We see jealousy, hatred, love, hate, sympathy, grief, fear, panic, etc. Even though the story is 800 pages long, and sometimes it seems that nothing is happening for pages on end, it is a very rewarding novel. After reading contemporary young adult, easy books, like Hunger Games, you appreciate the intricacies of Brothers Karamzov, and the titanic skill needed to write something of this calibre. I am sure I did not grasp many of the points Fyodor was trying to make, especially in the more difficult passages like The Grand Inquisitor, or the time Ivan imagines meeting the devil, but it nevertheless, to the journey through the book was rewarding and satisfying. I recommend it.

8 The Class

The novel follows the life of five different people, from the time they enter Harvard as eager freshmen wanting to change the world, to their graduation anniversary 25 years later. We have an eager pianist wanting to reach the top of the world, a Hungarian immigrant who wants to join to the highest ranks of the White House, a hard working Greek dedicated to study of the classics, a sporty blonde gentleman who conquers others at tennis and squash, and finally a son of an aristocrat, who is trying to find out his part in this world. Personally, I read this at a very appropriate moment - I am currently in my third year of university, and seeing the stories of fresh graduates unfold before my eyes, showed me the various different life paths people take, and the dificulties encountered along the way.

I found some motivation in the book. Most of the characters are phenomenally motivated and hard working. Danni Rossi, the pianist, practices piano every waking moment. George Keller, the Hungarian immigrant, who speaks no word of English when entering the US, is able to learn it in 3 months by studying, reading every New York Times from cover to cover including classifieds. Another character claims he has not seen him sleep. Seeing exhibitions of such hard work, I look at myself, and the time I misuse, with contempt. After graduating, the book looks at the next 25 years in each of the characters lives. There is happiness, disappointment, sadness, success, revenge, lust, love, among others. Each characters has his own adventure, and you can find many themes and messages, but for me, considering the love and family struggles all the characters go through, one of the main messages, would be “happiness is only real when shared”. I hope to take at least this out of the “The Class”.

The novel is long, nearly 600 pages, and some editing, cutting out some subplots/substories could have helped reduce the size. Still, I highly recommend it, especially for people still in university, or fresh graduates, all unsure and scared of the paths life will take them on.

9 Conclusion

Again, thank you for getting through all these short reviews. If you have any comments, regarding either content or style, I would be happy to hear them - please leave a comment below.

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