Bestsellers

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.

Philosophizing Mortality

This is a review of two books that have changed the lives of the writers and readers in profound ways: Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

I have clubbed the two books together because they fall in the same genre of books; they both are incredibly insightful about life and its workings, in a way that perhaps only those who are literally facing mortality can perceive. The books are also vehicles of strength to the writers. For Morrie Schwartz, the Tuesdays he spent with Albom in writing Tuesdays With Morrie gave him the mental energy to go through ALS. Dr Paul Kalanithi, a successful neurosurgeon, wrote When Breathe Becomes Air so as to take the second road (of the Two roads (that) diverged in a wood..), to be the littérateur that he didn’t become; and in doing so, he fulfills a long held wish, even as he struggled through lung cancer.

Carpe Diem!

When Breathe Becomes Air speaks about how life can be defined and redefined by living courageously. Carpe Diem.

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When Paul Kalanithi (the handsome young man in the picture above) mailed a friend, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” This kind of charm is hard not to fall for. Rendering a sobering account of death at the doorstep, to be inviting and friendly (and, with due respect, a page turner as well), is something only as skillful a writer, and as clear headed a man, could have done. Yes, I’m a fan of this fine doctor.

For another sample of his writing skill, take the example of how he employed motifs like nature. He uses his childhood in the Arizonian desert to also symbolise a terrifying lull in his life. Terrifying, because it included pleasant company like tarantulas, and a lull, because his family had relocated from the din of Manhattan. This lull was also meant to stand in for the exciting phase of the quiet before the storm, and in this case, a welcome one including academic success.

Kalanithi’s deliberate dissection of what it means to be a doctor is written with a sharp scalpel. To him, being a doctor was less about the job, and more about his own calling. He was about to take up a great job at Stanford before he was diagnosed with cancer.

After he reads the scan that confirmed his lung cancer, everything that was, ceased to be. But in a mark of great courage and dedication, after a short sabbatical for treatment, he goes back to being a surgeon to finish his residency, and to doing what he knew he was best at. Envisioning the future continued to confuse and trouble Paul, though. Sure, he could take life on, one day at a time, but when he didn’t know how many days were left, what could he do?

When Breath Becomes Air isn’t meant to be a self help book, so don’t read it if that’s what you expect of it. It’s an intimate account of a doctor’s realisation of what it feels like to face death and to deal with the central issue related to his confrontation with mortality – life. The ‘unfairness’ of Paul’s cancer is not easy to fathom. And the credit for that goes to Paul’s ability to transform the narrative from being a sob story to being one that stokes at the readers’ emotions – not with the fact that he’s dying, but by drawing the readers into his life – by showing them what he loves, his passion, and then by rudely swatting away their wishes for him. However, at an unseemly moment or two, a tiny part of me wondered how it is that he is so perfect. His profession was looking enviable by all accounts, he was a loving husband, a rational and affectionate doctor. There are only virtues. Is death his ultimate and only flaw?

As opposed to Paul’s book (carpe diem!), Tuesdays With Morrie asks us to pause life. To introspect. And to live well.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Tuesdays With Morrie exhorts you to make the right choices, in life and relationships. Albom tries to narrate how his life was spiritually transformed in the time he spent with Morrie, and since.

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The most lovely part about Morrie’s book is Morrie himself. He’s a wise professor of Sociology, who has an aura of having understood life, in and out. Often, it seemed like he was speaking to me with a twinkle in his eye. The book flits between the past and present, and is a quick read. It’s also written well overall, but lacks flow of thought to suit the ideas that Morrie is trying to convey. Albom tries to be a wallflower interlocutor, but sprinkles the book with his regrets and feelings and fleeting images of his dreams. That was actually underdone in my opinion. I’d have liked to have read more about how Morrie changed his students’ lives.

Albom turns the book, which was supposed to be insightful to the uninitiated, into a self help book with too much indigestible fibrous life advice (“Love always wins”?). For all his assertions of spiritual transformation, Albom is highly guarded about what that transformation entailed, leaving me, as a reader, skeptical. Also, I thought the editors could have done a better job with compartmentalising the book by reducing the eccentric random insertion of chapters, which consisted of italicized text and no context. Or was that part of the beauty of the book?

Similar, yet so different

As I read the books and wrote this review, a question has gnawed at my brain – is it right to judge or review books that confront and philosophize mortality? (I did it anyway)

In Tuesdays, there is a the somewhat maudlin insistence that Morrie’s experiences and learnings must be taken to be biblical. Lessons from those experiences are pontificated as life lessons for everyone. On the other hand, Paul was more accommodating, in the sense that he didn’t seek to change anyone’s lives. He simply wanted to be heard – for his own and his family’s sake – and in the bargain, he moved us. The biggest, and possibly most irreverent, criticism against Tuesdays is that it felt bland after reading Paul’s memoir. (So don’t read it in that order). After Paul, one would want a personal memoir. But in Tuesdays, you get general advice about life and relationships, in crisp sentences which are not guaranteed to affect you personally or create a long lasting impression.

In a world of people who readily offer advice on life choices, Morrie’s advice came off as sermonizing, and Paul seemed like a friend whose advice you would read between the lines.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, the books belong to the same genre. But I’d hazard the opinion that they are appealing to different age groups. Kalanithi’s book is likely to have more takers among young and middle aged readers. Tuesdays with Morrie is more a book for the wisest among us who can understand and appreciate the gravity of what is written.


Treat Tuesdays With Morrie like the interview of a beloved teacher who has a great idealistic mantra to share with you. 2/5 if you’re not a Chicken Soup reader. I hear that the recordings of Morrie’s Tuesday sessions are highly rated.

Read When Breathe Becomes Air if you want to enjoy a well written book by a man who courageously reinvents his life, keeping in mind the fact that he has very little of it left. 4.5/5

PS: As Paul Kalanithi’s fan, I went looking for stuff he’d written. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he for The Washington Post –

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

The Pursuit of Happyness

The world is your oyster. It’s up to you to find the pearls.

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Chris Gardner’s life is amazing, and boy, he writes about it soulfully in his book, The Pursuit of Happyness. A small part of this book was adapted into the very famous movie which goes by the same name.

There is no need for a plot summary of a book that’s made into a movie. But as a person who enjoys reading many folds more than watching a movie, I feel obligated to urge you to read this book if you liked the movie. You will love the book. The movie has a good deal of Hollywood to it –  for instance, the day-care for Chris Jr wasn’t as bad as they showed it to be in the movies. And the life of Chris Gardner as a child, which was fully skipped in the movie, is much more forceful than I’d expected.

There are pieces of the book that shocked me. But I was soothed by the way Chris handles his sticky situations. As a 13 year old he saw more hardship in life with the dexterity of a winner, than anyone I know has.

The fervor with which he yearns for a better life for his son and for himself (because Moms said he could) is so high pitched that goosebumps weren’t altogether unexpected.

I don’t usually use a pencil when reading fiction. But this book is an outlier. There were simply too many wise words that needed deep pondering, and which I intend to go back to. For instance, there’s this: “No one else can take away your legitimacy or give you your legitimacy if you don’t claim it yourself.“For anyone that has felt the pangs of self doubt and low self esteem, this should be like a breath of fresh air. And it was for me.

The Pursuit of Happyness is an easy read, but also an engaging one. It has made me happy. In my pursuit of happiness, I’m glad I was able to read this book on the way. 4/5

Caged

This is my review of Room by Emma Donoghue.

Saw this book on a Bestsellers of 2015 list, and was fascinated by the true crime premise. I lou psychological thrillers, and this seemed right up my alley.

Jack is a lively, precocious five year old. He lives with his mother, dislikes green beans and spends much of his time glued to the TV in his room. The normalcy ends there. Jack has never left his Room- to him it’s a proper noun- because his mother has been imprisoned there for seven years by a kidnapper. And he’s the product of repeated violent rape.

Disturbing, yes. Somehow this is offset by the casual, matter of fact narration. In Jack’s world, ‘screaming for help’ is a game to be played after lunch every day.

Not to worry, mother and son are rescued about halfway through the book. From there on out, the story is about Jack’s impressions of the outside world (talk about culture shock!). His mother spirals into a depression, and they’re both the target of some unpleasant paparazzi, but all this takes a back seat because to a five year old, pizza and toys are much more important.

This kind of terrible crime does occur today, and is undoubtedly terrifying for the victims. But in my opinion, telling the story from the point of view of a child distracted from the horror/emotional aspect of it, and didn’t have the saving grace of unique insight.

So despite the promising theme it wasn’t really what I expected. 2.5/5. I wouldn’t really recommend this book.

PS: This is *-ing awesome. Short story dispensers in public places. Beats staring at your phone to kill time.