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Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

A sweeping novel of 950 pages (!) which starts on page 960. The Nobel laureate describes hundreds of characters, with even more names; immerses in countless locations, languages, and creeds. Her protagonists always remain strangers.

There is something wonderful in being a stranger, in being foreign, something to be relished, something as alluring as candy. It is good not to be able to understand a language, not to know the customs, to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognizable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens—an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious. Cleverness and acumen come about. A person who is a stranger gains a new point of view, becomes, whether he likes it or not, a particular type of sage. Who was it who convinced us that being comfortable and familiar was so great? Only foreigners can truly understand the way things work. (pp. 390)

From Smyrna and Athos to Ivanie, across fluid Poland, Brünn (exact location), Vienna (exact location) and Offenbach to Paris in times of the French Revolution and the Supreme Court. From pariah creditors to noble debtors. Jacob and his daughter Eva; Yente and Nahman; and the heroes in the background, Hayah, Asher, and Thomas. Life in the eighteenth century, torn between hunger, disease, murder and rape; lies that kill, curses that float; and debates about Aufklärung, when religious zeal morphs into political activism and the practice of law.

The Word rules.

… the world is made of words that, once uttered, lay claim to every order, so that all things seem to occur at their behest. All things belong to them. Every curse, even the slightest, has an effect. Every single word that’s said. (pp. 645)

Nahman’s creed:

… I patiently stumble forward, not inquiring into the price I will have to pay, and even less so about any reward. My friend and ally is that moment, that urgent hour, the dearest time to me, when suddenly out of nowhere the writing gets easy, and then everything appears to be wonderfully able to be expressed. What a blissful state it is! Then I feel sage, and the whole world becomes a cradle that the Shekhinah has laid me down in, and now the Shekhinah leans in over me like a mother over an infant.

The path to the left is only for those who have shown they deserve it, those who understand what Reb Mordke always said—that the world itself demands to be narrated, and only then does it truly exist, only then can it flourish fully. But also that by telling the story of the world, we are changing the world.

That is why God created the letters of the alphabet, that we might have the opportunity to narrate to him what he created. Reb Mordke always chuckled at this. “God is blind. Did you not know that?” he would say. “He created us that we would be his guides, his five senses.” And he would chuckle long and hard until he began to cough from the smoke.

The novel comes with a bibliography, so is the story real?

Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is … the perfection of imprecise forms. (p. 14)

In any case,

… any person who toils over matters of Messiahs, even failed ones, even just to tell their stories, will be treated just the same as he who studies the eternal mysteries of light. (p. 10)

Goodreads summary:

The Nobel Prize-winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe.

In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas–and a new unrest–begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank–a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day–is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries–those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is–The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

Goodreads reader Marc’s summary:

For those who like wide-ranging historical novels, this is the real thing. Tokarczuk immersed herself in 18th-century Greater Poland, which then covered large parts of Eastern Europe. Seen from the West, it was a perifere area, but it stood in intense contact with the Eastern Ottoman Empire, which at that time still controlled almost the entire Balkans. Tokarczuk sketches dozens of characters who constantly go back and forth between those two regions. These are especially Jews, and the author examines that Jewish world in great detail.

Her central story focuses on a Jewish heretic movement which actually existed in the middle of the 18th century. The movement was led by Jacob Frank, an Ottoman Jew. He was a very unlikely guru, but had an enormous charisma and managed to get tens of thousands of Jews behind his ‘Trinity Faith’. He seduced them with an eclectic mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which was particularly attractive because it offered the Jews, with their always precarious position in Catholic Poland, the prospect of civil rights through baptism.

Olga Tokarczuk is the most acclaimed Polish writer of the moment (twice the Niké prize, once the Man Booker International prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize 2018), but with this book she has had a really difficult time in her own country. Her focus on the Catholic discrimination against Jews in Greater Poland was not appreciated by the right-wing, conservative government currently in power in Warsaw. Also the picture she paints of an extremely diversified Polish nation, with a jumble of ethnicities and religious movements that lived together, contradicts the homogenic Polish identity that has been cultivated since the 2nd world war.

But that is precisely what makes this book extremely interesting. The way Tokarczuk brings all these different movements, cultures and ethnicities to life is a feast for the reader’s eye. Her narrative style even has a certain Marquezian flair, with a dash of magical realism through the character of the old Yenta who remains in a state of coma for hundreds of pages, and – stepped out of herself – glides through space and time, guiding the story a step further.

But there is a downside to this verbal firework: the immersion in all those worlds, the dozens of characters, the constant changes in perspective and time, all this makes reading this very bulky book a real test. For instance, it takes a quarter of the book, almost 250 pages, before the real story about the heresy of Jacob Frank takes off; until then Tokarczuk builds up, with constantly new characters, and travels back and forth between Poland, the Balkans and Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey). Also the sometimes very intense theological discussions among the Jewish rabbis, diving into kabbala, demand a lot from the reader.

Again: this historical novel is quite a tour de force , not only in terms of size and depth. For me, the charm of the reading was mainly in the Chagal-like character of the visual language of Tokarczuk: she regularly sketches dreamy scenes with the comatose Yenta that floats over time and space and oversees everything. But in the long run it’s all a bit too much: the story just lingers on, endlessly, and I missed a real existential story, with people of flesh and blood. Hence the slightly lesser rating. But I’m definitely going to dive into Tokarczuk’s other work!

Jed McKenna’s “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing”

Goodreads rating 4.36.

Spiritual enlightenment is not about mysticism or happiness, although the latter might follow from the former. It is not about the “true self” but about the non-self; about radical questioning and truth seeking that ditches all putative certainties; about watching the unfolding of life with joy and interest; about accepting contradictions.

Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”

Goodreads rating 4.22.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Surely there is no greater gift to a man than that which turns all his aims into parching lips and all life into a fountain. And in this lies my honour and my reward,—That whenever I come to the fountain to drink I find the living water itself thirsty; And it drinks me while I drink it.

If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them. Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things, but not their end, And I fain would have you remember me as a beginning.

Peter Bieri’s “Das Handwerk der Freiheit”

Goodreads rating 3.76. An inquiry into language and personal experience.

Bieri analyzes notions of free will, their basis or vacuousness, and their consequences. A powerful dissection of language and experience.

  • Wille ist bedingt durch Historie.
  • Ein unbedingt freier Wille wäre nicht der Wille der Person; er wäre unberechenbar und zufällig — nicht das, nach dem sich Verfechter eines unbedingt freien Willens sehnen. Freier und unfreier Wille sind bedingt.
  • Bedingt freier Wille hat nichts mit Zwang oder Ohnmacht zu tun, denn die Beweggründe liegen nicht aussen; die Person entscheidet.
  • Bedingt freier Wille rechtfertigt daher auch nicht Fatalismus. Nicht Vorherbestimmtheit ist ein Übel, sondern allenfalls das, was vorherbestimmt ist.
  • Verantwortung, Strafe und Moral? “In moralischen Dingen kommt es einzig und allein auf den Inhalt des Denkens an und nicht auf seine Herkunft.” (357) Der moralische Standpunkt ist zumindest eine Konvention, denen Abweichler unterworfen werden. Wir fühlen Reue, daher macht auch Verantwortung intuitiv Sinn.

Some reviews etc.:

  • Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl: Phänomenologische Genauigkeit ist das Ziel, auf das die philosophische Disziplin des Erzählens hinarbeitet (377). Immer wieder findet Bieri prägnante Formulierungen, um die Ergebnisse seiner Überlegungen zu resümieren. Etwa diese: “Ein Wille ist ein Wunsch, der handlungswirksam wird, wenn die Umstände es erlauben und nichts dazwischenkommt.” (41) “Die Freiheit des Willens liegt darin, daß er auf ganz bestimmte Weise bedingt ist: durch unser Denken und Urteilen.” (80) “Wir brauchen kein reines Subjekt, um die Erfahrung von Freiheit und Unfreiheit zu beschreiben.” (272) Bieri betont das Moment der Selbstdistanzierung, welches er zu recht als einen nichtmysteriösen und essentiellen Bestandteil unserer Erfahrung von Freiheit ausweist. Es ist dieses Moment, das die Ausbildung von Wünschen zweiter Ordnung ermöglicht (71, 103f), und uns damit in die Lage versetzt, zu unseren eigenen Wünschen Stellung zu nehmen: nicht Getriebene unseres Wollens zu sein, vielmehr als Urheber und Verantwortliche unserer Handlungen aufzutreten. … Der Wille ist Wille einer bestimmten Person, welche über bestimmte Charakterzüge verfügt und unter bestimmten Umständen denkt und handelt (49ff). Dieser Leitgedanke der Untersuchung ist nicht durch Phänomenbeschreibung gewonnen. Er liegt in der begrifflichen Einsicht, daß ein Wille stets nur bestimmter Wille sein kann (239). Andernfalls wäre er ein leerer Wille, also gar kein Wille. Wer mit diesem Gedanken anfängt, kann nicht dahin gelangen, den Willen als in den Lauf der Welt eingreifend zu denken, ohne diesem selbst unterworfen zu sein, mithin als einen Willen, “der von nichts abhinge: ein vollständig losgelöster, von allen ursächlichen Zusammenhängen freier Wille. Ein solcher Wille wäre ein aberwitziger, abstruser Wille.” (230) … Die Idee eines unbedingten Willens ist, entgegen der Intention ihrer Verfechter, gar keine stimmige Idee. Ein unbedingter Wille, wenn es ihn denn gäbe, wäre ein unfreier Wille — ein sich selbst aufhebender willenloser Wille. … Die Einsicht, daß ein freier Wille nur inmitten von Bedingtheiten wirksam werden kann, eröffnet nach Bieri einen Ausweg aus dem klassischen Dilemma der Willensfreiheitsdebatten: der scheinbaren Unvereinbarkeit von Freiheit und durchgängiger kausaler Bedingtheit alles natürlichen Geschehens (23).
  • Sabine Klomfaß: Bieri zieht mit seinem Konzept des Willens und des Urteilens gegen den Determinismus und einer daraus folgenden Resignation zu Felde. Gebetsmühlenartig legt er dar, dass der Wille “von innen” nur in pathologischen Fällen (wie beim zwanghaften Handeln des Spielers) oder “von außen” erpresst (wie beim Zwang zwischen zwei Übeln zu wählen) wirklich unfrei sei. Im Normalfall aber kommt der zukünftige Wille, so Bieri, “nicht auf dich zu wie eine Lawine. Du führst ihn herbei, du erarbeitest ihn dir, indem du von freier Entscheidung zu freier Entscheidung fortschreitest, bis du bei ihm angekommen bist.” Dabei betont der Philosoph insbesondere die Funktion des Denkvermögens: “In dem Maße, in dem die Aneignung des Willens auf Artikulation und Verstehen beruht, handelt es sich um einen Erkenntnisprozess. Wachsende Erkenntnis bedeutet wachsende Freiheit. So gesehen ist Selbsterkenntnis ein Maß für Willensfreiheit.” Denn erst das Wissen um die Möglichkeiten, die man haben könnte, und dann das Durchdenken und Bewerten dieser Möglichkeiten, formen einen Willen, der wirklich als eigener und verantwortbarer erkannt werden kann.
  • Michael Springer: Freiheit existiert nur als bedingte Freiheit. Unser Wille agiert in einem strukturierten Feld; er hat eine Vorgeschichte. Das enthebt uns nicht der Verantwortung für das, was wir tun – selbst wenn es im Nachhinein aussieht, als ob “alles so kommen musste”.
  • Iris Morad.

See also this on a related book by Julian Baggini.

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues for the kind of values instilled by a socially conservative parental home: Aim for paradise, but concentrate on today. Meaning is key, not happiness. Assume responsibility. Listen carefully, speak clearly, and tell the truth. And stand straight, even in the face of adversity.

Here they are, Peterson’s 12 rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson motivates the rules by telling stories and anecdotes from his experience as a clinical psychologist, which he mixes with interpretations of religious (mostly biblical) texts as well as Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Frankl, or Dostoevsky. Peterson gets politically incorrect when discussing his 11th rule: He strongly rejects postmodernism and nihilism; and he shows little respect for management science: “[T]he science of management is a pseudo-discipline.”

As so often, what the author has to say could be said much more concisely. The book is far too long to precisely communicate the core ideas. What are they? Dean Bokhari suggests the following three key quotes from the book:

“We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”

“Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society establish, maintain, and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld. Where everything is uncertain, anxiety provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a parent can bestow.”

“The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.”

He also offers a “tweetable summary:”

Always tell the truth. Admit and learn from the past, make order of its chaos, and work towards not repeating the same mistakes. Pay close attention.

Other reviewers stress that Peterson wants his rules to help us strike the right balance between order and chaos (see also Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”). For example, Wyatt Graham condenses Peterson’s thinking as follows:

… life (or Being) involves suffering. … So, “We must have something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).

We need to embrace Being, to not give in to suffering, and to find meaning. We need to live in the border between chaos and order and find our meaning there. …

For Peterson, to find meaning is to take on the responsibility of Being. We find it when we realize “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life” (xxxv). He continues, “If we live properly, we will collectively flourish” (xxxv).

Yet others offer longer summaries, for example u/AresProductions on reddit, James Razko, or Neil Soni. Nat Eliason collects quotes from the book. Here is my summary of the summaries:

  1. Dare. Show strength in the face of adversity.
  2. Avoid self contempt. Be self-conscious and have a vision.
  3. Assume that you chose the easy path, and then take a different one. Improving is much harder than the opposite. “If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself?”
  4. Focus on taking one step at a time. And take it.
  5. Teach your kids to behave properly (not least, to make them socially desirable). Discipline is not revenge.
  6. Conduct yourself as if Being is more valuable than Non-Being (or risk becoming a serial killer). Set your own house in order before trying to improve the world. Blame yourself—not for life’s tragedies, but for surrendering to them.
  7. Search for meaning, not for happiness. Sacrifice, i.e., invest.
  8. Be authentic. Avoid life-lies. Tell the truth to yourself and others. Big Wrongs are based on countless small lies. Only truth is compatible with meaning.
  9. Listen.
  10. Lack of precision breeds chaos. Precise speech brings things out of the realm of the unspeakable. Precision separates the unique terrible thing that happened from the others that might have happened—but did not.
  11. Respect culture, and human nature. Pity today’s boys.
  12. Our vulnerability is what makes us human. So celebrate the small joys of life.

In The Guardian, Tim Lott summarized Peterson’s worldview as follows:

“Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

In another discussion in The Guardian, John Crace made it even clearer that he didn’t like the book at all.

Goodreads contains many reader reviews. Wikipedia page.

Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind”

Homo appeared roughly 2 million years ago in Africa and Homo sapiens roughly 200’000 years ago in East Africa. Harari divides his account of the last 70’000 years into four parts: The cognitive revolution (language), the agricultural revolution (about 10’000 years ago in today’s Turkey, Iran, Levant), the unification of humankind (through money, empire, and religion), and the scientific revolution. According to Harari, Sapiens developed more efficient strategies for cooperation than other species and in particular, Neanderthals (which sapiens eradicated around 30’000 years ago). The rest is history, i.e., evolutionary biology and cultural history.

On his website, Harari summarizes:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

According to Harari, the agricultural revolution fostered population growth but made life harsher for most humans (due to less varied diet, harder work, infectious diseases)—and for the animals that Sapiens domesticated; religion, empires, money and trade fostered globalization and unification; the scientific revolution arose from Europeans’ admission of ignorance, and it was intertwined with imperialism and capitalism; whether humankind has become happier over time is unknown but doubtful; and we may soon confront a singularity:

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed `before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us (p. 461 in the Vintage 2015 edition).

Other tidbits:

  • Settlement of Australia (“The Flood”), America, New Zealand: 45’000, 16’000, 800 years ago. Each settlement was associated with mass extinction of species.
  • “[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively” (p. 27). “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” (p. 36).
  • “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. … These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa” (p. 90). The revolution bred worries about the future. Food surpluses brought rulers and elites, palaces and temples, politics, wars, art and philosophy (p. 114). One `imagined order’ with three classes and two genders—the Code of Hammurabi—dates from 1’776 B.C. (p. 117). Writing, archiving, cataloguing (invented by Sumerians around 3’500 B.C.) preserves information about imagined social order; this is critical because the information is not preserved in DNA. Script undermined holistic thought. Hindus invented `Arab’ numerals around 800 AD (pp. 137–146).
  • Cognitive dissonance, contradictory beliefs are necessary to maintain any human culture (p. 184). Over the last 10’000 years, thousands of `human worlds’ have collapsed to a single one (p. 186). Three universal (imagined) orders: Money, empire, religion (p. 191). “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (p. 201). Empires are stable, inclusive, not that bad (p. 219). Religious norms are founded on a belief in a superhuman order (p. 234). “Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals” (p. 236). Polytheist and animist religions recognize a supreme power in the background, devoid of biases and interests (p. 238). Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens. Liberal humanism believes in the humanity of the individual. Socialist humanism believes in the humanity of the collective. (Both build on Christian tradition). Evolutionary humanism (e.g., Nazism) believes that humankind can evolve or degenerate  (pp. 256–263).
  • Science started from the admission of ignorance; observation and math; and the acquisition of new powers (p. 279). Social stability requires that certain `scientific results’ are a dogma or that basic truths are non-scientific (p. 282). With the capitalist system and the industrial revolution, science, industry and military technology intertwined (p. 294). “[S]cientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research” (p. 305). Science and empire supported each other (ch. 15, 16). The scientific revolution and the idea of progress fostered credit; this reinforced each other (p. 346). The industrial revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion (p. 379) and it was a second agricultural revolution (p. 382). Animal suffering, consumerism (ch. 17). The national time (p. 396). State and market replace family and local community (p. 398). “The state and the market are the mother and the father of the individual” (p. 402). “The nation is the imagined community of the state” (p. 406). The world is safer than ever, and war does not pay any more. Have humans become happier? Answer 1: “Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin” (p. 436). Answer 2: Meaning. But “[p]erhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions” (p. 438). Answer 3: Feelings are not to be trusted; of key import is whether people know the truth about themselves (p. 443). Intelligent design and extreme inequality (ch. 20).

Wikipedia points to critical scholarly reception.

Truth, Triviality, and Contradiction

Nils Bohr chose

Contraria Sunt Complementa

as motto for his coat of arms. According to his son and others, Bohr distinguished between the logical properties of trivialities on the one hand and profound truths on the other:

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. [Unsourced]

There are two sorts of truth: Profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd. [Quoted by Hans Bohr]

It is the hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth. [Quoted by Max Delbrück]

Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

In Douglas Adams’ book (volume one in the trilogy of four) we learn, among other things:

  • Towels are particularly useful for interstellar travelers on a shoestring.
  • It’s not clear whether humans conduct experiments on mice or vice versa.
  • The answer to Life, Universe, and Everything is “forty-two” as Deep Thought found after an extended period (seven and a half million years) of number crunching.
  • But what is the question? To find out, an even more powerful computer was built: The Earth. “Deep Thought designed the Earth, we built it and you lived on it.”
  • Unfortunately, the Vogons destroyed the planet just five minutes before the program was completed. The badly timed intervention was communicated as follows: “This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.” And after some moments: “There’s no point acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”
  • Another artificial planet may be under construction. It might feature fjords as in Norway (on the original Earth), but this time in Africa.

See here or here for quotes from the book(s).

Ayn Rand‘s “Atlas Shrugged”

Ayn Rand‘s master work about mind, productive man and his liberation. More than a thousand pages long but rarely tiresome (except for John Galt’s radio speech) the novel blends thriller with common economic sense and Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.

The economics makes sense—incentives matter and give rise to a trade-off between efficiency and equity; but it is crude—market failure is neglected. The most interesting element in the incentive problem faced by the government sponsored “looters” and “leeches” is the sanction of the victim.

The philosophy (as summarized at the end of the paperback) is less convincing; it certainly does not follow from the economics. Much more on objectivism on the website of the Ayn Rand Institute.

Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”

Philippa Perry’s short book provides a succinct perspective on mental health. Perry argues that mental disorders fall into two groups: one associated with behavior that displays a tendency to stray into chaos; the other with behavior that manifests itself in excessive rigidity. She discusses the structure of the brain and the role of nature vs. nurture in integrating emotions and reasoning. The former rules.

Perry points to several areas that are central to successfully navigating between chaos and rigidity:

  • Self-observation: Wisdom and sanity build on a non-judgemental, self-observing attitude that fosters self-awareness and avoids self-justification. Self-observation amounts to re-parenting oneself. It helps develop compassion (internal and external) and it grows the brain. It requires to use feelings rather than be used by them. Keeping a diary helps, as do prayers or meditation. “Toxic chatter” doesn’t.
  • Relating to others: Brains need brains; nurturing relationships are key to staying sane. True dialogue requires honesty and thus, vulnerability. “Adhering to strict guidelines about how to behave around others is a form of rigidity. Not being mindful of your impact upon others is a form of chaos.” The “daily temperature reading” fosters emotional honesty.
  • Stress: Positive stimulation is fruitful; it fosters learning, creativity and brain plasticity and it strengthens the immune system. But it must not become overwhelming as to trigger panic and brain dissociating. Physical activity generates good stress.

When things go wrong Perry recommends to aim at re-writing one’s narrative:

  • Personal narrative: Grasping one’s guiding beliefs helps developing new perspectives. Narratives are co-constructed and form minds. They pass down “identity, wisdom and experience” from generation to generation. Telling one’s own story helps gain distance and independence, and it creates “a place of freedom” (Perry refers to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). Narratives are self-reinforcing; a genogram can help uncover and trace their roots. But stories are flexible, they can be changed, and so can lives that build on them. “Creating a consistent self-narrative that makes sense and feels true to ourselves is a challenge at any stage in life.” Optimism is productive and self enforcing; but hearing good news must be learned. Fear of losing love comes with penny-pinching. Certainty is a trap.

Dietrich Schwanitz’ “Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).