The Republic by Plato

What is your idea of justice? Do you think a just man will be happier than an unjust man? These are the basic questions that Plato tries to explore in the book through Socratic dialogues. You would think it wouldn’t take terribly long to ponder on these questions and you would be very much mistaken. This is quite a comprehensive bit of work and Plato makes no attempt to welcome the dabbler!

What begins with an inquiry into justice and its relationship with happiness spirals into something much bigger, for Plato leaves no stone unturned in his quest of the perfect forms or ideas. Because he barely makes any assumptions, it is up to him to prove each of his statements through dialectic and he does that with a painstaking thoroughness. Carefully, bit by bit, he constructs a philosopher’s utopian state ruled and guarded by accomplished and genuine philosophers and layer by layer he gives shape to the perfect society.

From the kind of government to the system of education to marriage considerations and familial bonds, professions, arts and even Gods, nothing escapes Plato’s scrutiny in an attempt to propose the perfect state. The state of man, the darkness of ignorance and the enlightenment that he receives through the right education and training are immortalized in the allegory of the cave that Plato describes. Even if you never pick up the book, I’d strongly suggest watching this 5 minute video dedicated to Plato’s Cave.

It is important to note that some of Plato’s ideas may seem too radical for example the concept of a mating festival and no sense of a personal family but in his attempt to realize the ideal, Plato seems to least respect the conventional conformities. The Socratic method of challenging people to come up with their own arguments and then shredding their arguments by the force of logic and reasoning is a powerful method of convincing people and exposing their hypocrisy. Plato employs the same method to propound and expand upon his ideas, while proving that competing thoughts do not hold up to true ideals. There is an abundant amount of goodness and beauty in The Republic and bits of discomfort or radicalism should not deter the reader to pick up this monumental treatise on breathtaking philosophy.

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Atomic Habits by James Clear

“If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.”

I have never been big on habits and for a very long period of time, I used to pride myself on that. I have always seen myself as someone who is driven by inspiration more than habits. Spontaneity over planning. The big picture more than small daily recurrences. I picked up this book (along with The Power of Habit) more as a way of deriding this habit-philosophy than anything else. However, things were about to unravel a bit differently.

A lot of self-help literature that I read is an exploration of myself and a quest to be better than yesterday. Inherent also is a lurking admission that I am not really what I would want myself to be. Reading this book (along with the Power of Habit) made me see some part of the truth of my identity crisis. Can I really be someone I want to be if my everyday habits (the ones that I repeat every single day of my life) are not aligned with that aspiration? Point being, we can’t simply imagine ourselves to be a particular something if our habits are not well-directed.

For instance, if am sleeping at 4 am everyday and then waking up at 11 am, having maggi for lunch and spending the rest of the day on laptop watching random things or indulging in meaningless conversations, all this when I should have been attending classes and focusing on learning as much as possible, then how can my big picture dream of being a pioneer in cutting edge robotic engineering come about or even a long cherished dream of writer-poet stand any chance? But it’s not really even about the outcome, the crux of the matter is, would I call myself a good student or an eager learner? And what kind of a person would these habits make me?

Well, everyone could have a different dream and everyone might have a different identity to aspire to. At this point of time, even after all my failings, I have made myself prove to be useful enough for gainful employment, financial independence and professional excellence. I am not prone to beating myself over for all the lost opportunities. But yes, I have discovered a potent tool in the form of habits and I have made no qualms about using it. In fact, this blog is one of the many effects that this book has had on my life. I fully intend to define myself and build my identity habit over habit over habit.

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Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“The best way to verify if you are alive is by checking if you like variations”

It took a long time for me to complete this book. It is not the most voluminous or opaque book that I have read but it was, by a long shot, one of the most uncomfortable ones, so much so that I had to frequently stop reading it to absorb and discern the ideas in the book.

The tone of the book is, admittedly, arrogant and harshly dismissive of those that the author disagrees with. And there a lot of people that the author disagrees with. And there is a high possibility that you may find yourself in one of the groups that the author abhors. I was quite reluctant to go on with this book at several stages because it went against so much of my modern education, milieu and beliefs.

However, the ideas were presented in such a robust manner with cogent evidences and practical examples that it was tough to dismiss it as just another mumbo jumbo and slowly but surely the gravity of what the author was saying sunk in and made me shed a plethora of modern biases and a super large ego of the educated and well-formed but opinionated mind. Slowly I began to see fragilistas all around me (and within me) and began looking at things in terms of convexity effects and the triad of antifragility, robustness and fragility.

There are several important ideas discussed in the book but one theme that connects them all is our collective (mis)understanding of risk, volatility, and optionality as a society and why this is making our systems (and indeed us) more fragile. While the adoption of everything that Taleb says may be a bit of a daunting task, we can certainly apply a lot of his ideas to gain from the prevalent and inherent disorder all around us and by extension, make an attempt to fix the broken systems. To me, the mere putting into words of the concept of antifragility, which is so pervasive in natural systems, was nothing short of revealing and shocking at once. The idea that things rather than breaking or simply withstanding pressure from a random disorder can actually gain from it, is in itself inspiring and a pretty robust (rather antifragile) philosophy to live your life by.

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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

“….And death is the opposite of possibility, understand?”

The Midnight library is best read at midnight; when you are in between a day gone by and a day that is about to come, when things are quiet but your mind is abuzz with hundreds of regrets and imagining a thousand ways you could have had a better life if only you had taken that decision or made that other choice.

This is a heart touching story and it is not the case that this kind of a story hasn’t ever been told before but it just hasn’t been told that often. The delicateness with which the author has handled the persistent questions of depth and breadth of life (and death) and it’s meaning will make your heart softer and your head clearer.

The sprinkling of philosophy across the pages interspersed with the struggle with depression and a general level of heightened awareness about the world makes this book riveting, heart warming and illuminating; all at the same time. It is remarkable how the author has fit in so much of insight in a relatively short and simple book that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a story about an unassuming girl who feels has lost her way in this painful world and doesn’t want to live anymore.

In a world that is so hung up on perennial happiness and burning ambition, this book will tell you that it is okay to be sad at times, okay to have missed out on certain things and that there is no version of your life that suits and defines you more than the one that you are in right now. Life from every moment onwards is a blank book waiting to be written the way you choose to write.

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What is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

Erwin Schrodinger’s intellect, knowledge and intelligence were extraordinary. Netizens generally know him by the strangeness of the eponymous cat and those with a scientific background would have encountered his mind-bending equations of wave particle duality. But Schrodinger’s depth and breadth of knowledge goes much beyond quantum physics and this book is an apt representation of not only Schrodinger’s erudition but also of the insights that careful thinking and extensive reading can produce.

It is a daring attempt on the part of a scientist to present a holistic picture of life encompassing philosophy, religion, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. It is breathtaking in its expanse and there is no attempt by the author to merely touch upon the subjects, Schrodinger makes sure that this is not merely the work of a dabbler but indeed of someone who has read and understood various branches of knowledge itself, thoroughly. The book usually comes with subsequent sections namely: mind and matter and autobiographical sketches, and all of the sections are as engrossing as they are illuminating, throwing light upon the personality of the author and the character of reality and experience itself.

From Kant and Plato to Einstein and Darwin, Schrodinger leaves no stone unturned in his quest to solve the question of life. Yes, this book is demanding and may leave you enervated after a few pages but it shall surely make you more alive to the quest of knowledge and the pursuit of meaning through investigation of nature using the prism of philosophy and science.

Throughout the book, you would never get a feeling that this is a man that is completely removed from simple pleasures of traveling or socializing with friends or that here is someone who is completely cut off from the political realities of the world he lives in. Far from it, this book shall even lend you glimpses of personal accounts through defining moments in world history and how it is not just impossible but also thoroughly important to be a person of both theoretical and practical knowledge.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work may not be the kind of book which makes you feel good about yourself or gives you a comfortable reassurance about the way you are going about your day to day life. This is also not the kind of book that you can lie down at night with to make yourself lull into sweet dreams.

Right from the word go, you will get a sense of the unflinching seriousness of the author towards the depth and quality of work. This will either put you off or will make you sit up and take notice at once, depending on what you want from your life (and your work). The book itself is structured in a no-nonsense way. The author introduces the idea of deep work in the first part and then elucidates its rules in the second, all the time being completely genuine and honest about his observations and intentions.

Deep work is not just for scientists or academicians. It is something that we all can (and probably should) aspire to do in our professional lives, that is, if we are really serious about doing some focused and meaningful work. The author admits, of course, that not all work can be deep (especially in a modern knowledge worker’s life) and that some portion of our work is bound to be shallow: non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks that are often performed while distracted. However, in current times, we are losing our ability to work deeply on anything at all, in the process laying waste to our talent and potential to produce anything of real value.

The greatest enemy of deep work is distraction. And the best friend of distraction is internet or more appropriately network tools! Instant connectivity and social networking has upended our lives in ways that are far beyond comprehension but what is fairly easy to see is that it has made us feel distracted almost all the time. We have virtually lost the ability to stay focused on our work which has robbed it of its value and meaning, however the necessity of deep work has only kept on increasing owing to the growing complexity of systems around us (resulting in a higher demand and lower supply of high-skilled workers).

Deep Work is not a philosophical take on the quality of work or on the lack of depth in our distracted, internet-addicted world but is rather a practical guide so as to make your life a more fulfilling one and do something (or in such a way) that is rather rare, meaningful and valuable.

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The Plague by Albert Camus

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

This is a haunting fictional tale of a very real problem that has descended upon very real characters. Albert Camus has dissected the society that is plagued by all kinds of viruses and yet that resists with all kinds of goodness. The setting is of a French Algerian city, Oran that has been struck by a deadly bubonic plague in the middle of the twentieth century. But you could be forgiven to think that large parts of the novel are a description of any modern city and its response to the current viral outbreak.

The slow creeping realization by the large populace that their lives are going to be upturned like never before, the response of the authorities from dismissive carelessness to knee-jerk responses, the role of religion and its proclamation of divine punishment, the separation and exile and the accentuation of class inequities; all of these ring too close to the current times to not feel a sense of eeriness and also weariness, weariness with the character of society and the near constancy of human nature across geographies and eras.

But the novel is not merely a tale of despondence and darkness. The story (and the city in the story) stands on the shoulders of people who are ready to work overtime, to wear themselves out, to extend themselves thin for the sake of others. Not because they think they are heroes, far from it in fact. They rise above themselves to help others because they think that’s the only thing to do in such times.

I picked up this book to look at the times that we are going through right now through the eyes of a distant narrator, from another time. I wasn’t disappointed, even though some of the things are vastly different than how they are now (with respect to the medical facilities and the basic nature of disease itself), the novel still captures the basic essence of these current times. But the journey that this novel essentially takes you through is more inward-looking than what is external, the basic philosophical questions about human nature, God, destiny and purpose, and their practical realizations.

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Abundance by Peter Diamendis and Steven Kotler

“…perspective shapes our reality. The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself”

This is as much a book about optimism as it is about technological innovations. The argument that the author tries to make is that technology is creating limitless opportunities and a better (more abundant) future is in store for all of humanity.

There is ample evidence strewn across the pages to prove the author’s claim that technology and its ramifications are bringing about exponential improvements in people’s lives. I read this book just after I finished Factfulness and I think I could draw some parallels at least in the way that change is put into perspective and that the present condition is compared to the past trends.

Surely, there are enough reasons to think that the world is progressing towards a better future and that we have come a long way from past horrors and problems. Author states that much of the progress is owing to new technology and its adoption; from aluminum to internet. It is also a fact that multiple things are correlated in a way that a lot of positive exigencies result from the solution of one problem. Like the debilitating problems of illiteracy, poor health standards, child mortality and overpopulation might be pretty much clubbed and solved together.

I found the book pretty inspirational and full of brimming positive enthusiasm, and it sort of propelled me to look around and observe how technology brings about drastic changes; changes that are both profound and achieved in relatively far lesser time period compared to how changes have progressed in the bygone eras. It is perhaps a bit daring though, the optimism, at least at times, hence it should come as no surprise that the author released a sequel to this book and named it ‘Bold’.

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

That is the secret of happiness and virtue, liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”

Brave New world is a difficult book to talk about, owing to its strange ambivalence. Characteristically, utopian books envisage a perfect future and dystopian ones, the exact opposite. This book imagines a world well into the future that is built on the idea of a perfectly happy community and this is where it gets a bit tricky. The world envisaged is where everyone is indeed happy and content and yet there seems to be something horribly wrong with the world.

This new world, built on values of Community, Identity, Stability is a place of perfect order and contentment. Sadness has more or less been eliminated and rebellion is unthought of. In short, we can more or less conclude that this world has everything that is desirable from a happy individual to a closely bonded, stable community.

But, as you go deeper into this world you realize that everything is superficial and devoid of any depths. Can happiness and order replace meaning and struggle? Can eugenics solve the problem of class and talent? Can labs replace all the centres of spirituality and can the metaphysical be done away through hedonism and scientific innovation? The novel does not necessarily seek to answer these questions but it raises the spectre of what might come about if we were to only aspire for (what may seem like) desirable outcomes without giving much ethical thought to the means of getting there.

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The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

There is no such thing as perfection, only the relentless, thirsty matching of an organism to its environment. That is the engine that drives evolution.

To an inquisitive mind, a mind that seeks answers to the general questions of life, universe and everything else, it is hardly possible not to be fascinated by genes. The idea that there is a genetic code behind all life and that it is encrypted and decrypted generation upon generation by natural processes present within all life forms is riveting to say the least.

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee delves into the history of the long, arduous and incredibly captivating discovery of genes, replete with all the excitement, rediscoveries, forgetfulness and rivalries within the scientific community. The book is woven into an extremely interesting chronological story from Pythagoras and Aristotle to Watson and Creek and beyond. Another story runs parallelly too, a more personal one, that talks about the mental illnesses that run in the author’s family. A touching and moving account that makes it clear that the science of genetics and heredity is not just a theoretical pursuit but indeed something that affects, shapes and determines a large part of all our histories and futures.

Some sections may get too technical but the author has more or less been successful in simplifying the various stages of the history of genes and the multifarious ramifications associated with the idea. He has particularly emphasized upon the dangers of eugenics and the immense possibilities of gene therapy. The writing style is pretty much conversational and you may be forgiven to think that this is an intensely gripping fictional story of an elusive link that unites all the characters and events in the book!

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