All the World's a Classroom
This is a collection of quotes on the magical power of books, from the minds of book-lovers throughout the ages (emphasis mine). There truly is something special about the act of reading. See if you resonate with these thoughts.
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” – Rebecca Solnit
“Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.” – Hermann Hesse
“But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page.” – Galileo Galilei
“…an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.” – David Foster Wallace
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” – Carl Sagan
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors… Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” – C. S. Lewis
2016 is half over! Which makes today a good time to do a mid-year review of the great books from this year. As a result of my decision to read books for understanding and wisdom back in January, my reading selection and habits have changed, and when I look back at the reading list, I actually like almost all of them. Here are the best books of 2016 so far. Part 2 of this list will cover the favorites from the second half of the year. Wait for it in early 2017!
If you’re curious about what I’m reading right now, visit my Goodreads profile.
This book marked a turning point in my reading experience. I decided to read better and no other book could teach reading better than this book. Adler outlines the 4 levels of reading, namely elementary, inspectional (with a brilliant section on how to skim a book effectively), analytical (understanding what the ideas are and how they are connected), and syntopical (synthesizing ideas across multiple books). The goal is to extract as much wisdom as possible from the book you are reading, to understand what the author is trying to communicate. This book should be a must-read for all high school and college students, as well as everyone else who takes reading seriously. The ideas in How to Read a Book inspired these essays in this blog:
Thiel is a Silicon Valley giant who co-founded PayPal and invested early in Facebook. This book was compiled from the notes of a student from his entrepreneurship class. He describes two kinds of growth. Zero to one refers to a step growth, a radical invention that changes the world, as opposed to a “one to n” growth, where a great idea is being replicated many times over. We see this phenomenon a lot. Something revolutionary comes out, then a hundred imitators build something similar to it. This book is about the first kind of growth, the radical changes, which according to Thiel is how we make progress in society.
Everyone who has read this book loves it. It is a profound and moving piece by a dying man. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon resident when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. In between the diagnosis and his death, he produced a remarkable reflection on medicine, excellence, and the true meaning of life. To get a flavor of what he wrote about, check out these posts:
Some of my favorite writers are medical practitioners. Perhaps their close connections to human lives inspire a special depth of understanding in humanity and our existence. Sacks was a neurologist and a prolific writer. This small book is a collection of 4 essays that he wrote towards the end of his life. There’s something special about reading an octogenarian reflects about his own life. The Consciousness of Time essay above was also inspired by this book.
This was probably the most fun book I picked up this year. I obliterated it with notes, dog ears, and highlights. I didn’t necessarily buy into every conclusion of Nisbett’s experiments, since a deeper reading of the actual journal papers was warranted for this, but the general trends of how Asian thoughts differed from Western thoughts were observable in real life, especially in mine, being Indonesian in the US. This book fit perfectly into the essay series on worldview that I had been working on since last year. If you just wanted to know the key conclusions of this book without reading it, I’ve summarized them in these posts:
I also wrote a narrative of my own cultural experiences in these posts:
I absolutely love this memoir! Jahren is a geobiologist, which is a fancy way of saying she studies plants. This memoir is about her journey as a woman in science, academia, her love of trees, and her friendship with Bill, her longtime lab partner. Their adventures are the stuffs of storybooks. What is most magnificent about Lab Girl is Jahren’s language. She has a knack of putting words together poetically, whether it be on the life of a tree or on the joy of discovery. Highly recommended for women (and men) who love science.
As a side note, it is also thrilling to see that science writing has been having a good run in 2016!
Axelrod was one of the key minds behind President Obama’s revolutionary campaign in 2008. He was the strategist for both of Obama’s campaigns and an advisor in the White House in Obama’s first term. Politics is usually associated with bad sentiments: skepticism, corruption, hypocrisy, etc. Which is why it’s refreshing to read about someone who has been in the thick of it for 40 years and still believe in the power of politics in bringing good to society. Axelrod believes that politics is and should be a calling, and this book is a frank review of his choices in working with candidates who did and did not emulate this value.
I love political memoirs because they give me a different picture of reality compared to what the media depicts. Part of being informed is examining the sources of our information. The media is one source and they have their take on reality. But this is far from the only one. Books like Believer and other political memoirs lift up the curtain a bit and let you see what goes on behind the scene. One thing I’ve learned is this: I may or may not agree with the writer’s politics, but the work ethics of many public servants in the White House is laudable.
This is the scariest book I have ever read. It tells stories of patients with neural degeneracies. Because something goes wrong in the brain, a person can not recognize his own hand or leg, hear a constant song in her head, not able to recognize faces or objects, or think only in prime numbers. These are not stories of despair, though. Quite the contrary, Sacks brings out the humanity in these cases, helping us see them as fellow human beings rather than just patients. For one thing, it teaches me that it is a gift and privilege to have a brain that works properly.
Taleb is one of the best contrarian thinkers of today. He couldn’t care less about intellectualism; it’s all about practical wisdom. This book proposes a contrarian philosophy in investing and probability by focusing on blind spots, the events that you deem highly unlikely to happen, but if they do, will radically impact your life or your organization. The proverbial black swan refers to this: if you believe all swans are white, it only takes one black swan to obliterate your belief system.
This is not a book that one can read lightly or quickly. It’s instructive because it teaches you to think differently. Taleb also recently gave a graduation speech, something he doesn’t do often. You can read the script here.
Another doctor on the list. Gawande is a general surgeon, recipient of the 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and a writer for The New Yorker. This book is about what it takes to be successful in medicine. Gawande is an effective writer and the book is almost like an anatomy lesson in excellence.
[Update] Based on this book, here comes the densest article on this blog so far. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re driven enough to read 3500 words on how to excel, click the link below.
Great books let you meet and spend time with inspiring people. I’ve noticed that there’s one thing that these people have in common that inspires me again and again. Read about this unique trait in this post:
Favorite Books Lists
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In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, surgeon, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, writer for The New Yorker, reflects on what it means to excel and be successful in medicine. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the Genius awards go “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” It’s a very suitable description of Gawande, who in his writings is greatly concerned in making medicine better.
Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.
You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Ziman, “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.” By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.
You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. I did not write until I became a doctor. But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write. For all its complexity, medicine is more physically than intellectually taxing. Because medicine is a retail enterprise, because doctors provide their services to one person after another, it can be a grind. You can lose your larger sense of purpose. But writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.
Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.
So choose your audience. Write something.