Unpacking my summer’s readings

So I’ve finally gotten to munch through a hefty chunk of my reading list this summer break, which to this day is still outpacing my ability to keep up. Nevertheless, I’m pretty happy to report that the couple books I did manage to finish were full of gems and precious little nuggets of insight. The list goes as follows (in chronological order of completion, more or less)

  1. The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman
  2. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  3. Behave by Robert Sapolsky
  4. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
  5. Barking up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker
  6. Give and Take by Adam Grant
  7. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
  8. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

3, 2, 1… Unpack!

“In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.”

— Alan Lightman

I’ve got to say, Lightman has a way with his words. In this essay, he weaves together descriptions about our vast and chaotic universe that just ooze with inspiring, tear-jerking beauty. His one segment about humankind’s yearning for permanence in this universe, that is notoriously unkind to that very notion, is so poignantly crafted that it’s worth a couple rereads. As a physicist, Lightman took his sweet time describing the universe at the enormous, cosmic level. At parts, he reached levels of abstraction where you were being fire-hosed with talk about thermodynamic laws, God(s), probability, miracles, and all other things that straddle divinity and science. This was great food for thought, for sure, but all this universe talk seemed to me like a bad recipe for nihilism. Human existence, in the grand scheme of things, really is woefully insignificant, especially if you’re zoomed out all the way in god-land like that. So I guess this book wasn’t the best at making me feel as though my mundane struggles, wants, and life ambitions had any real meaning or importance (which do, I protest!). Did this book fill me with wonder and intellectual bliss? Yep! Did this book kindle the fire in me to grease up my elbows and roll up my sleeves and make a difference in this world of humans? Sadly, no.

“Somehow, it is only when you don’t care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Hohoho what a refreshing read this was! How should I describe this book… a bold treatise that exposes everything wrong with the world’s approach to risk and randomness through the lens of an anti-intellectual scholar? Taleb has no tolerance for bullshit, is irreverently skeptical, and is ruthlessly blunt about his dislike for pretentious armchair intellectuals and “fragilista” professionals. What impresses me the most about AntiFragile is that it is one of those few reads that actually have a real influence on my actions and thought processes. His arguments about randomness and risk (maximize optionality, gauge fragility instead of trying to predict the future, embrace variability over fragile stability, etc.) have pretty concrete applications if you really internalize what he says. No other book motivates me as much as this one to explore my opportunities widely and boldly. He never explicitly says this in the book, but the sentiment I really took away was: Carpe Diem! (Oh, and also a little bit of ‘Fuck You’)

This is not to say that I instantly agreed with everything he said. In fact, I admit that I found quite a few of his concepts to be difficult pills to swallow, at first. For instance, he argues that we can tame the randomness in our lives by having optionality, as it can help us bound our losses and unbound our gains. Basically, you’ll always have the upper hand if you diversify your options, enter situations while maintaining multiple exit strategies and backup plans, and generally refuse all eggs-in-one-basket commitments (because that’s what fragile suckers do). I admit, my initial reaction to this was of mild disgust. Here’s a snippet from a sour journal entry I wrote, which I quote: “Taleb wrote an entire book about how not to be a sucker. Instead, he teaches you how to be something else: an asshole!” In slightly less emotional terms, what I meant here was that this flighty strategy would work great for self-preservation, but seems damagingly reckless to the big things in life that do inevitably require vulnerability and self-sacrifice, like close relationships. I think Taleb provides fantastic practical advice for how to withstand and thrive from turbulent challenges, but he would be missing the mark if he pushes self-preservation as the highest priority for living a good life. These insights, that have served him well as a former trader on Wall Street, just might not produce the same smashing successes when applied everywhere in life, I reckon. So while he has certainly demonstrated the wide applicability of his ideas, I yearn a bit for a more conscientious exploration of its limits.

“You don’t have to choose between being scientific, and being compassionate.”

— Robert Sapolsky

Ok this book takes the cake as my #1 favorite book of this summer. It also deserves another superlative: #1 Most philosophically provocative book.

Here were my first thoughts:

  • Robert Sapolsky?! The Sapolsky guy who did that brilliant talk at Stanford that inspired my starry-eyed self from middle school? YEA OH YEA IT’S HIM
  • Oh dear. Very big book.

If you were to go to Mars and could take only one social science book with you on your journey, bring this behemoth. A book with the ambitious goal of exploring all the best and worst parts of humanity, Sapolsky has meticulously combed through and weaved together a comprehensive quilt of all the landmark studies and events that have shaped science’s understanding of human nature to date. He patches together the motivations and meanings of our actions by blending ideas from a spectrum of disciplines including evolutionary biology, biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, philosophy, game theory, law, and economics . Something I admire a lot about this book is the amount of nuance and humility Sapolsky has when explaining human behavior. No matter what arrogant “experts” confidently assert about their fields, one can’t adequately account for all the subtleties of human nature by relying on any singular model. I guess that sounds like common sense, but I think the inquisitive softness that I have come to appreciate in Sapolsky’s writing isn’t something very common at all.

That being said, I do have to say this book had a slow start for me. Sapolsky probably intended for his narrative to be as accessible to the general public as possible, so he took his liberties in the early chapters to explain the fundamental biology and neurochemistry concepts underlying his book. Not to say that this stuff isn’t interesting, but it was a little dry. Anyone who has taken a formal psychology class before or is a seasoned reader of social science books probably isn’t a stranger to many of the famous experiments he discusses in detail. Not to worry, though. The pace eventually picks up, landing its best kernels of wisdom and greatness toward the end. And seriously… it is worth the journey. I finished chapters 15-17 feeling like a champion, having experienced feelings towards humanity that swept across my whole spectrum of emotions (a book can do that?). I’ll do you the courtesy of not spoiling any of it ;)

So why do I find this book to be the “most philosophically provocative?” ‘Behave’ obviously invites a lot of introspection about human nature, but I think the doozy in this book lies in the recurring dialogue about free will vs. determinism. I know — bear with me — this debate has probably been beaten to death within academic circles for a century. But Sapolsky brought a new sense of urgency to the question by noting the relentless advancements of scientific and technological discovery we’ve been seeing in recent years. Sapolsky himself sits in the deterministic camp of ideology (gasp!), and goes into pretty grave detail about what this implies. If what he says is true, that humankind is already headed in the direction of realizing there is no free will, our current legal system and humanistic societal mores will be needing some serious revisions. But hey — the hopeful future he paints, where we will have shed our primitive beliefs in “evil” agents and learn to harmonize science with compassion sounds pretty swell to me. *shrugs*

(Bonus quote, because I loved this book so much)

“Solving those nuts and bolts issues may be a way of ending the war, But peace is not the mere absence of war; making true peace requires acknowledging and respecting the sacred values of them. /…/ In rational choice models of decision making, something as intangible as an apology could not stand in the way of peace, yet they do. Because in recognizing the enemy’s sacred symbols, you are de facto recognizing their humanity, their capacity for pride, unity, and connection to their past, and most of all, their capacity for experiencing pain.”

— Robert Sapolsky, Chapter 15

“This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world. Accordingly, the central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God, but rather gaining faith in humanity.”

— Yuval Noah Harari, Chapter 9

Ok, I admit: After Sapolsky’s grand finish in “Behave”, diving straight into a second let’s-walk-you-through-all-of-human-history book without a proper palette cleanser wasn’t the most tasteful choice. But let’s leave that behind us, shall we? What “Homo Deus” has in common with “Behave” was an iffy beginning, though for a different reason. Harari starts the book off by painting some crazy speculations about humanity’s future and excitedly exploring the moral quandaries that come along with them: we unlock immortality, “hack” away society’s current afflictions, and/or upgrade ourselves to be living gods (hence the dramatic title). To be honest, all of that optimistic sci-fi talk started to annoy me, and I came close to abandoning the book; if there was anything I learned from Nassim Taleb, it was to protect my eyes from the cancerous garbage spewed by haughty experts who think they can predict the future. Thankfully, Harari was aware of this, as he was quick to qualify himself, before he began his thorough survey of man’s historical timeline, starting from square one. That was where the real fun began.

What stood out to me about this book was not its recounting of specific historical events in detail, but rather its insightful high-level analyses of human progress. I LOVE it. Somehow, Harari was able to capture the zeitgeist (pardon the fancy word) of every great human era, into one flowing narrative.

Here’s one example so you know what I mean. Harari remarks at one point that “modernity is a deal,” in which we have traded meaning for power. Long ago, when humans were pretty powerless against nature and celestial deities were the go-to answer for all the big questions about the universe, people didn’t struggle with existential crises. But in the modern age, where science and technology equip people with more power to direct their lives than ever before, meaninglessness and existential unease strikes like the plague. Cool, right? “Homo Deus” is FULL of insights like this. It’s incredible.

“We often confuse fate and destiny for meaning the same thing. But UCLA professor Howard Suber clarifies the distinction: fate is that thing we cannot avoid; it comes for us despite how we try to run from it. Destiny, on the other hand, is that thing we must chase — what we must bring to fruition. It’s what we strive toward and make true. When bad things happen, the idea of fate makes us feel better. Whereas /…/ success doesn’t come from shrugging off the bad as unchangeable and saying things are already meant to be. It’s the result of chasing the good and writing our own future. Less fate, more destiny.” — Eric Barker

Of all the books listed, this one was definitely the breeziest and perhaps the most enjoyable book to read. It is a fast and lightweight read, with an addicting quality to it that reminds me of online blogs (like Medium!). Addicting, you might ask? Yeah — the chapter titles are written like Buzzfeed article headings ( I mean this endearingly) , just beckoning for you to continue. For example, here’s one: “Do Nice Guys Finish Last?” … Need I say more?

I don’t have much else to say about this book besides how easily digestible and pleasurable it is to read. But don’t get the wrong idea — It’s full of hearty insights, and I love how Barker can explore some very deeply philosophical questions in plain speak, without dishing out empty, glib answers. It’s an espresso shot of no-frills discourse and practical wisdom about our common misconceptions about success. Who doesn’t like to ponder about how to live a successful and meaningful life? What is success, anyway? Bring it with you on your next plane ride or listen to its audiobook version during some thoughtful walks. 10/10 would recommend.

“Givers don’t burn out when they devote too much time and energy to giving. They burn out when they’re working with people in need but are unable to help effectively.”

— Adam Grant

Nice guys don’t finish last. There, I said it. Adam Grant says so too. And then he wrote an entire book about it.

This book has the lively cadence that reminds me a lot of Malcom Gladwell’s books. Solid, real-world examples and anecdotes make Grant’s book lucid and persuasive. Reading ‘Give and Take’ gave me the fuzzies at parts, because who doesn’t want to feel that all is right with the world, where happy endings occur to people who give generously? But, of course, anyone who hasn’t been living blissfully under a rock their whole lives knows that this isn’t always the case. The kicker in this book is not that he praises saintly and self-sacrificing behavior (which, he does admit, can turn people into burnt-out doormats), but the way he distinguishes selfless and “other-ish” giving. Effectively, he discusses what styles of giving are actually sustainable and win-win in the long run, while giving practical advice about how not to be a burnt-out doormat. Valuable stuff to read, especially if you self-identify as a giver and want to feel validated. Grant reminds us that we (impersonal ‘we’) can help others and help ourselves too, if the cards are played right. I think I give this book a 7.5/10… solid book with clear arguments, but nothing about it made me leap out of my chair.

“ The professional man lives off ideas, not for them. He’s a mental technician”

— Richard Hofstadter

I’ve got to say that this book was most unlike the others I’ve read. If you’re a U.S. history buff, you’d really enjoy this book, which deep-dives into the ebbing and flowing tides of American anti-intellectualism since its origins in the Great Awakening of the 1700’s, all the way to the present day.

( Heads up: This next bit is more of a rant than a book review.) The most mind-blowing thing I learned was really how deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism is in American culture. Peering into the darker parts of the U.S.’s recent history (remember McCarthyism?), the book highlights that intellectuals in this country have long been stamped with disparaging stigmas of being untrustworthy, morally decadent, effeminate, and, get this, un-American. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a different culture, but those sentiments just seemed bizarre to me as I was reading about them, and it took me a long time to understand. Personally, I’ve always revered the well-educated for their critical reasoning skills and genteel dignity, and could never wrap my head around why respectable Americans would routinely seem to be captivated, instead, by crass populist figures. How did “hardworking and charming Christian with simple and practical-minded values” become popularly known as the traits of the “quintessential” American man? This book walked me through the ins and outs of anti-intellectualism, which has become so integral in this country’s narrative. Here’s a thought: have you wondered why the U.S. isn’t known for having beautiful relics or extravagant monuments of classical art and culture, like many Western European countries are? Maybe it’s because the U.S. was built by founders who wanted nothing to do with all that . The first settlers had fled from such countries, and have abandoned centuries of history and tradition and culture, to live a simpler and more pious life. From this, you could probably imagine how anti-intellectualism begins to fit into the picture of American history. These roots run deep.

As much as I don’t want to bring up the 2016 election and subsequent events, this book, though it was published in 1963, is pretty darn relevant to all the craziness that we’re facing today ( is it a little disturbing that things haven’t changed that much in a half-century?) Last year’s presidential election was insane; it tore open old scars, and revealed an ideological rift between Americans that at times is so hostile that it seems impossible to get both sides to understand each other. I won’t say that this book magically made me “understand” all of the unrest between the left and right, or convinced me that anti-intellectualism is a great thing (still disagree…). But it definitely got me thinking about how swampy and complex this makes American history.

All that being said, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was a fascinating but pretty challenging read. I’m no U.S. History enthusiast, and I certainly won’t be able to remember all the names, dates, and events that were mentioned, but it was enough to get me thinking about America’s past, the evolution of its values, and the perspectives of the “American people” of whom people like to refer.

“ Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality — but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred solution.”

— Daniel Kahneman, Chapter 24

When shopping on Amazon for this book, I’ve honestly read nothing but praise. Kahneman and Tversky’s work have had an earth-shattering influence in the social sciences and economics for the past few decades, and it goes without saying that this book is a staple for anyone remotely interested in behavioral economics. All I can really think of to say is to read this book carefully, and have a pen on hand to annotate. This book is DENSE with counterintuitive insights about human psychology, which will make any reader start to think twice about the reliability (or unreliability, rather) of his/her judgment. Very cool, all the way through.

Unpacking: Done

So, there’s that: my compendium of book commentaries of the summer. I am ALWAYS looking for more thought provoking things to read, so please (x3) feel welcome to send me book/article/blog recommendations. Thoughtful discussions always appreciated :)

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student || gloriawfeng.com