February and March 2021 Reads

Sending calm & healing energy into the universe & sharing some gems from my Feb & March reads – from a historical fiction classic set in the 1968 Prague Spring to a diary that celebrates life (and death) to the fullest. A much-appreciated dive into history, the future, & self-reflection.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Review that most resonated with me: “There are novels that are tragic or entertaining, and this one is both. There are very few that give a fresh perspective on existence and force the reader to reassess [their] own life and attitudes.” Victoria Glendinning, Sunday Times

“Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and thereby gain a slower death?…And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which are bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.” A classic, this novel challenges you to question what it means to really be, how human beings seek their own truth and meaning, how our personal identities are shaped by love (for ourselves and others), how privacy and personal freedom influence our being, and more. Set in Czechoslovakia during the 1968 Prague Spring, the novel focuses on the lives of two men and women and their dog. The style and plot of this book may not be for everyone, though if you enjoy philosophical musings, I suggest giving this a read!

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Favorite sentence: “No academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.”

I always admire people who aren’t afraid to tackle the big questions, and Harari does exactly that in an accessible and captivating manner. The book I didn’t know I needed, it discusses “who we are, how we got here, and where we’re going.” I recommend pairing Jared Diamond’s seminal Guns, Germs and Steel with Sapiens, as Sapiens takes things a step further by challenging you to think about what it truly means to be human on a personal and societal level. That Harari recounts human history in less than 500 pages with thought-provoking perspectives is a feat in itself. The book addresses the following questions: what forces allowed sapiens to commit an “over-hasty jump” to the top of the animal kingdom and create large-scale calamities? How do science, money, and empire building create fragmented family/community structures yet usher in strong individual/state structures? How does greed, growth, and living on “modern time” (artificial clock rather than natural rhythms of nature) impact our everyday lives? What good does advancement in science, more wealth, and more power bring to humankind if humans aren’t happier or aren’t achieving greater well-being than our ancestors, and are actually bringing more suffering to ourselves, animals, and the planet? A must-read.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus is another one that tackles the big questions, though it is more speculative than Sapiens as Harari addresses what entities and forces (“immortality, bliss, and divinity”) he thinks will shape the 21st century and beyond. In a world where famine and infectious disease are now (largely) controllable, Harari discusses ways modernity has molded how we see ourselves today, and how concepts, practices, and philosophies such as humanism, liberalism, divinity, science, capitalism, and consciousness will shape the future. Homo Deus “asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers?” (from Goodreads synopsis) 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

This book is quite different from Sapiens and Homo Deus with 21 chapters in essay format, each with a theme (e.g., work, immigration, justice, post-truth, meditation, etc.). Harari offers philosophical perspectives on each theme, providing historical and futuristic approaches to tackle society’s current challenges and questions. What does the proliferation of infotech and biotech, and AI and robotics, mean for our world? How does the interplay of nationalism, religion, and other local identities shape global issues of climate change and ecological collapse, nuclear war, and technological disruption? This book requires imagination and a slower read to capture the ideologies and concepts posed. I particularly appreciated Harari’s emphasis on adopting a more humble approach to our worldviews, rising above our “local identities” to meet today’s challenges and keeping fear under control. I did find myself wishing Harari provided more in-depth discussions on work/research already conducted by experts in respective fields (i.e. ethics and AI, meditation, etc.) to better ground his ideas though found the book to be insightful overall.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Brought me back to the college courses as I took as a neuroscience major, particularly my Neurobiology of Addiction course. While I didn’t enjoy Transcendent Kingdom as much as I did Gyasi’s Homegoing, this novel paints a nuanced picture of mental illness, identity, religion, faith, trust, and ‘home’ that draws the reader in. Gifty, a graduate student in molecular biology, works in an ultra-clean and antiseptic laboratory setting, with her work extremely methodical as lab work is, mirroring her relationship with her mother in certain aspects. I appreciated how Gyasi brought the layers of reward-seeking behavior and both the psychological and neurological underpinnings of mental illness to the fore, weaving Gifty’s personal experiences with mental health with her research.

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change by Jared Diamond

I admit I was quite disappointed by this book, as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was so influential for me while Upheaval…wasn’t, to say the least. Giridharadas’ NYTimes review of this book captures my sentiments (especially about the generalizations made in this book and wishing Diamond highlighted other authors’ work). I still appreciated the analytical aspects of this book (and the historical lessons I gleaned from them) so would recommend it for that purpose, especially if you enjoy connecting seemingly distinct concepts. This interconnectedness is presented throughout the book by Diamond’s analysis of 12 “factors related to the outcomes of national crises” and trauma juxtaposed with personal crises and trauma, using seven countries as “case studies”: Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the US. Factors he analyzes include national core values (at personal crisis level: individual core values), material and financial help from other nations (at personal crisis level: material and emotional help from other individuals and groups), and situation-specific national flexibility (at personal crisis level: flexible personality). At times, I found the connections to be a bit of a stretch (seems at times he tried to fit facts into the 12 factors and omitted others) and wanted Diamond to contextualize his thoughts and findings more deeply, such as quoting books, studies, and previous analyses rather than quoting his friends. However, Diamond does mention that this book serves as a primer for future research and analysis and provides a roadmap for how understanding past crises might allow us to better address present/future crises.

A great book to pair this one with is Jason Hickel’s The Divide, which provides perspectives on the global crisis of inequality and the ways in which colonialism, capitalism, and other forces shape how countries respond to challenges today.

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum

Goodreads synopsis: “For the first time, Etty Hillesum’s diary and letters appear together to give us the fullest possible portrait of this extraordinary woman. In the darkest years of Nazi occupation and genocide, Etty Hillesum remained a celebrant of life whose lucid intelligence, sympathy, and almost impossible gallantry were themselves a form of inner resistance. The adult counterpart to Anne Frank, Hillesum testifies to the possibility of awareness and compassion in the face of the most devastating challenge to one’s humanity. She died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine.”

A beautiful book of introspection and striving to find meaning and truth amidst a world of terror. Etty’s diary (and letters written by Etty while at Westerbrok to her loved ones), kept during the Nazi regime in Germany, elevates her as a “genius for introspection that converts symptoms into significance and joins self-examination to philosophical investigation,” as noted in the Foreword by Eva Hoffman. I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece filled with such acceptance and celebration of life and death (Etty mentioned that her own survival translates to another human being’s death, and thus it would be best to accept her own death), altruistic understanding of one’s own ephemeral existence, and deep appreciation of beauty in the little things. I loved growing with Etty as she learned more about herself amidst all that was happening outside her window, witnessing all that the five senses have to offer, and her heart brimming with love for independence, other humans, and her favorite books and authors.

Some quotes I couldn’t help but highlight and share:

  • “More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers. We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left. But that is something each one of us must settle with himself and with God. And perhaps life has its own meaning, even if it takes a lifetime to find it. I for one have ceased to cling to life and to things; I have the feeling that everything is accidental, that one must break one’s inner bonds with people and stand aside for all else.”
  • “Knowledge is power, and that’s probably why I accumulate knowledge, out of a desire to be important. I don’t really know. But Lord, give me wisdom, not knowledge. Or rather the knowledge that leads to wisdom and true happiness and not the kind that leads to power. A little peace, a lot of kindness, and a little wisdom-whenever I have these inside me I feel I am doing well.”
  • “And the suffering, the ocean of human suffering, and the hatred and all the fighting? Yesterday I suddenly thought: there will always be suffering, and whether one suffers from this or from that really doesn’t make much difference. It is the same with love. One should be less and less concerned with the love object and more and more with love itself, if it is to be real love. People may grieve more for a cat that has been run over than for the countless victims of a city that has been bombed out of existence. It is not the object but the suffering, the love, the emotions, and the quality of these emotions that count.”
  • “Every day I shall put my papers in order, and every day I shall say farewell….If I knew for certain that I should die next week, I would still be able to sit at my desk all week and study with perfect equanimity, for I know now that life and death make a meaningful whole.”
  • “And at the end of each day, there was always the feeling: I love people so much. Never any bitterness about what was done to them, but always love for those who knew how to bear so much although nothing had prepared them for such burdens.”
  • “The soul has a different age from that recorded in the register of births and deaths.”
  • “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”

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