A self-improvement book

“The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” 

-Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 11

I have to say this category stumped me for a while, since I don’t tend to read books even remotely related to ‘self help’. I often read articles that might fall into this category (The Jesuit Post is a personal favorite), but books to me often feel indulgent, like letting yourself eat as many ice cream sandwiches as you damn well please (I have no personal knowledge of what such an evening might look like.. promise). Self improvement almost feels too serious for my precious book reading time. I’m finding lately that when I do venture into this genre it’s been well worth my time and dare I say it, incredibly enjoyable.

The thesis of The Shallows could be summarized in a phrase borrowed from Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Essentially, the way we consume information fundamentally shapes that information. We can agree a series of Twitter posts is not the same as a printed poem written decades ago (congratulations, Einstein), but the distinction feels more difficult for content that we consume through multiple mediums. The newspaper article I read on a printed paper is no different than that same article read on a screen, right? Throughout the book Carr hammers away at a single message: no, they’re not, and that changes how we consume them. And not only does it change how we consume that individual message, but repeated patterns of experience (like the way we gather and consume information on the internet) then come to change the way we think.

I have to admit, before this book I was of the mindset that as long as I used the internet for mostly intellectual pursuits, the internet would not in turn be affecting my cognitive process and thus could be solely ‘good’. I’m an academic, so a large part of my training and livelihood is based in my capacity to think critically. By the end of the first chapter I felt incredibly naïve in my original assessment about the internet. The strength in Carr’s argument is that he does not assert that the internet/technology is inherently bad. The distribution of information on the internet has an untold number of benefits, and it would be silly to argue against them. Instead, the main premise is that what the mediums we use will always involve a fundamental tradeoff. In the case of the internet, we’ve amassed the ability to take in information at an incredible clip, quickly browsing a large number of websites and efficiently finding relevant pieces of information within a larger block of text. What we lose is the ability to dive into a text and the attention span to do so, and there’s a reasonable argument to at least re-access if many of us have fallen too deep into that kind of thinking, and ask what it has done to our personal lives and our culture.

A fascinating examination of this in the book was the example of academic citation. One might imagine that the increased availability of academic articles on the internet would widen the base of scholarship that a paper might cite as a foundation for the presented research. Counterintuitively, as more and more work is digitized and sometimes available exclusively online, we as academics are actually citing fewer papers overall and from a more limited scope. We’re so efficient at finding relevant information that we are often skipping over and failing to make connections ourselves with our field as a larger whole. In college I actually remember going to the library and skimming through hard copy journals to find the work I was interested in for a particular project or paper. Without control + F, I actually had to skim through several titles before I found what I needed. This allowed me to at least briefly be aware of what else was being currently discussed and studied in the literature, and in some ways I wonder if I was better connected to my field then than I am now.

My takeaway from The Shallows was that I came to accept the main premise of the book: the way we consume content requires that we make tradeoffs for the skills we want to strengthen and those we are okay with being weaker. By understanding what those tradeoffs are, we can in turn use that information to make strategic decisions about the mediums we choose for the messages that are important to us. For me, I’m trying to limit web time a little bit more, but I’m also viewing my reading challenge this year in a new light– if the ability to get lost in a book for a few hours is a skill I’d like to retain and strengthen, then reading the printed word (especially sans hyperlinks) regularly is important to me to balance out the time I do spend on the web. Not only do I value this skill out of a love of reading and respect for the traditional literary mind, but the last few pages of the book that touched on how empathy and other emotional skills require thoughtful, slow thinking struck a nerve with me. Quick, automatic judgements don’t just affect how I take in abstract things like scientific concepts, but also data in social situations. Going beyond a potentially flawed impression requires thoroughly examining information instead of a quick assessment and advancement to the next new incoming stimulus, which is precisely the way we surf the web.

This book got me thinking about things in a new way than I had before (I could not shut up about Carr’s ideas to many people while reading it), and for that alone The Shallows might even warrant a re-read. Another reason to re-read it is probably a case in point about how the medium affects the message: this book was only available as an audio book from the library and so that’s how I consumed it, and there are times I found myself distracted and mindlessly online while listening to a chapter about distraction. I’m curious what I’ll take in when I’m reading in print form (my preferred method anyway, I’m not a huge audio book fan) and what I might understand better in that medium. If you’ve ever joked about getting a degree from University of Google (guilty), The Shallows is fascinating, scary, but most importantly thought provoking read that I definitely recommend.

A book based on a fairy tale

Photo on 2-28-16 at 8.38 PM #2

It’s important to accessorize properly while reading..

“So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?”
“Shazi?” Jalal’s grin widened. “Honestly, I pity the wolves.”

-Renee Ahdieh, “The Wrath and the Dawn”

Rating: 3.75 stars
Days to read: 5

I first received this book as part of my Uppercase Box subscription many months ago (hence the cute matching scarf!) but finally got around to reading it just this month.. which is a complete shame, because I’ve liked all this girl‘s picks! It was a perfect fit for this category and I already owned it, making it a win/win on my goal of getting through the year only on books I can borrow or already own.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a re-imagined One Thousand and One Nights. In Khorasan, each new bride taken by Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, is strangled at dawn after their wedding night. Dozens of girls have been murdered. The latest victim is Shahrzad’s best friend, and she decides to volunteer to be Khalid’s next wife with the sole plan of murdering him in revenge for killing her best friend. She does so of course without consulting anyone in her life, least of all her father (who is still grieving over his wife’s passing many years ago) or the boy she loves. This is incredibly dumb but I’m willing to suspend some disbelief for love of a best friend. She manages to survive the first night by telling an intriguing story about a thief who gets lost at sea, stopping right at a cliffhanger. Khalid is interested enough to let her live to the second night. In addition to Khalid, most of the staff at the palace seem thoroughly taken by Shazi and genuinely care for her. She has an incredible wit and a lot of tenacity. I particularly loved the back and forth with her handmaid and the unlikely friendship they forge.

Eventually Shazi begins to see a little more to Khalid than a completely evil monster, and she finds her resolve to kill him wavering. This would less infuriating if it was not so strongly tied to being incredibly attracted to Khalid as well. Girl, you have been there for less than a week and you already want a makeout sesh with the guy who murdered your best friend? Sounds like a great idea. For a character we are continually told is a complete force of nature and the definition of a strong, independent woman, this part of the plot felt lame. Meanwhile, Shazi’s father and childhood friends are running around trying to literally start a war to get her back. For someone stubborn enough to walk into a near death trap to avenge her best friend, her surrender is maddeningly premature.  The attraction precedes most of the glimpses of understanding she gets about his true character, which would have been so much more powerful the other way around. Over time though they have misunderstandings, frustrations, and moments of true friendship, which slowly redeemed the book for me.

After much prodding, Shazi finally learns the secret Khalid has been hiding from her. She sees his predicament and his guilt for what he’s done, and she comes full circle to loving him in full and all his flaws. I have mixed feelings about this because I think the ‘I’m attracted to you because you’re broken’ deal is overplayed and is often a really unhealthy foundation for a relationship in YA literature (and life). However, there are some really beautiful passages about the power of forgiveness and mercy and needing the company of others to understand yourself as a person which I really enjoyed.

The Wrath and the Dawn is part one of a duology (are single book stories outlawed in YA fantasy literature? Did I miss a memo?) but it sets up its successor quite well for some great action. With the coming war Shazi’s friends and family make an unfortunate ally out of what they think is a shared enemy. Despite my protests to some aspects of Shazi and Khalid’s relationship, the world Ahdieh sets up is beautifully described (make sure you’re well fed when you sit down to read this, the descriptions of the food alone are to die for and rival watching Food Network at midnight) and I found the tension of the brewing war and nuanced politics genuinely interesting to watch evolve. The Rose and the Dagger is due in May and I’d be lying if I said I won’t try to scoop it up soon thereafter.

A dystopian novel

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

-Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 8

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to cling to YA in many of my book selections. For this category I specifically wanted to avoid YA, because as much as I loved Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner, I need to branch out a bit. When I was researching possible selections for this category I came across Brave New World, and it dawned on me that this is a classic that I really should have read a long time ago. Being a product of the International Baccalaureate program, a lot of my high school reading lists concentrated on translated works (no complaints here– it was great exposure to a world of literature!), so it wasn’t really on my radar until college. I think it’s really important to read the classics and I’m glad I did, but I don’t think this book will crack my list of favorites.

The story begins at a Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in central London in the future where we follow a tour of the facility with a group of young boys. In the future children are no longer born but rather ‘decanted’. We have apparently learned so much about development that the entire process proceeds from start to finish in a lab. People can be created by the thousands, often in identical batches. Not only can humans be created, they are tailored for designated social castes. For example, Epsilons are purposefully deprived of oxygen to their brains for a brief period of time, making them ‘well suited’ to the mundane labor jobs to which they will be assigned later in life. These descriptions are enough to send chills up your spine. As a scientist, there are times I think we fail to think about whether or not we should create a technology, only if and how we can. Because of these technologies and the control they allow society, words like ‘mother’ become dirty.

Most of what shapes society in Brave New World is indeed built around convenience and carefree living as the supreme goal. Solitary pursuits, including reading, are discouraged as they tend to take away from time people spend money on entertainment and material things. The majority of the plot revolves around two characters. Bernard, an Alpha, is a bit shorter than the rest of his caste (rumor has it there was some alcohol in his ‘blood surrogate’) but perhaps because of this he is naturally a bit more secluded from the rest of society in a quite unorthodox manner. He doesn’t get the same enjoyment as everyone else from mindless consumption of material goods. He also doesn’t rely on soma, a drug that provides a hangover free mental retreat and is poised as a cure all for any negative feelings. This relative social isolation provides the substrate for the beginnings of the realization that this consumerist world is not quite as fulfilling as it could be and he seems at first to escape the mindless conditioning that rules society. On the other hand, Lenina (a Beta) is interested in Bernard but confused by his continual refusal of her advances. She is the ultimate product of of her environment– completely unquestioning, content with the world she has been designed for, and troubled by Bernard’s unorthodox comments.

Through a series of events Bernard and Lenina take a vacation to one of the ‘savage’ reservations still left in America. Certain areas of land have been designated as almost a living museum to the “old ways” where people are allowed to live in something that vaguely resembles our current world. People age naturally, procreate naturally, and they follow a bit of a weird mix of all the world religions as one. During this trip Bernard finds Linda, a Beta who used to live in London but became lost on the reservation during a trip there many years ago and was abandoned. While she was abandoned she gave birth to John, who was actually fathered by the director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in Central London.

Linda and John come back to London with Bernard and Lenina. John provides a little bit of political cover for Bernard spouting his unorthodox views (especially as it ‘outs’ the director for having fathered a child), and John becomes a spectacle for people to meet and comment on. Not surprisingly John becomes tired of being a tool for Bernard and is increasingly frustrated at the strange ways of the ‘new world’ (especially the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else”). Eventually John lives on his own in a remote cabin without the luxuries of the new world but he is still an object of intense fascination and bullying from people.

Although the plot felt a bit stilted and meandering, I found the theme of forgoing truth for happiness to be incredibly fascinating. In essence, if we want to know truth and grapple with it then we will know suffering as well. We could numb the suffering but that requires numbing truth, and the World Controllers in Brave New World know this and have explicitly chosen to do so as the greater good. Of course, the happiness that results in this scenario is false or at least incredibly shallow. There is something deeply satisfying about stumbling (and I truly mean stumbling) to figure something out your own way– it’s hard and it’s messy but you learn in a profound way so much about yourself and about the world. Convenience, for all its glory, can never give you this. One of my chief frustrations was that Bernard at times felt so close to grasping this concept but was more concerned with flaunting the superiority if his unique intellect and ideas rather than truly wanting truth. This perhaps is a fascinating warning in itself, that our intellectual pursuits can either truly be ordered towards pursuing truth or a false cover for our own ego.

Like 1984Brave New World is one of those books everyone needs to read for the sole reason that history repeats itself. It was written in 1932 but might be even more applicable now that our technologies are even closer to the fantasy world described in the book. The intersection of happiness, truth, consumerism, and mass culture is an interesting and worthwhile examination.