Figuring by Maria Popova – Book Review

The author of this book, Maria Popova is a well known curator of the excellent website brainpickings.org. Brain pickings has an eclectic collection of articles, books and other writings from various disciplines. Each post introduces a work followed by the author’s unique take on the creative work. This site has provided me tons of recommendations for what next to read. And that is why I jumped into this book as soon as i saw it on my recommended list on goodreads. If nothing else this book would be a treasure of trove of new paths to explore in my reading journey.

The book opens with a bang. It starts with a never-ending sentence that is probably one of the longest that I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Tyco Brahe and Kepler. It brought back nostalgia of when I first read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and found out how these individuals were as big contributors to the field of astronomy to the more famous names such as Galileo. I had started reading this book even without finding out what the book was about. And I thought the first chapter was giving me an idea of what to expect.

But after reading a few chapters, I feel I may have abandon this book because I still don’t have a clear picture of what the author is trying to say. The book flutters around constantly and introduces a lot of characters at the cost of clarity and coherence.

However, a few chapters down, I lost interest in the material due to the constant flitting back and forth, especially when the author is referencing quotes by others or transitioning into a new character. “A century later”, “Exactly seventeen years later”, “Fifteen centuries ago,” etc. It seemed like the author was trying too hard to fit these disparate thoughts by different individuals into a single narrative. It seemed forced, in my opinion, more like a collection of essays glued into a single narrative.

Moreover the author has used a lot of flowery language at many places when something simple would have sufficed. The opening sentence(if you can call it that) is a case in point. When you quote a lot of writings by other authors in your work, and the language of the quote is simpler than your interpretation of it, there is something going wrong. It feels like the author is trying to make an impression but failing.

I very much wanted to like this book because of the incomparable work that the author has done in building and maintaining the quality of brain pickings. But sadly the same does not translate in this work by her. And this book figuring will stay un-figured for me for quite some time.

The Laws of Human Nature – Book Review

I’ve enjoyed Robert Greene’s previous books immensely. The 48 Laws of Power was my introduction to the Machiavellian world of power and intrigue. Each page of the book was filled with useful ways to create an aura of power and become a more powerful social creature. His later book, Mastery focused more on an improvement of the self. In that book Greene explored the ways one can learn from the various Masters who have lived before us and have made a profound impact in various areas. And it was with this same interest and hope that I approached this book.

Just like his other books, this one is massive as well. Going for a never-ending 624 pages, it is by no means a quick read. And after reading through a few chapters, I realized that the book has fallen prey to the oft tried and tested trend in self-help literature. Anecdotes, anecdotes and more anecdotes. Mind you this is a safe method. That is why most self help literature heavily rely on this structure. But it is something that I greatly abhor. Yes successful stories do strengthen the conviction of a particular theory. But they also tend to suffer from confirmation and selection bias. It is almost as if Greene made a rough outline of the laws and then searched for examples that would fit these theories. Moreover it feels like that some of the anecdotes are greatly simplified or even modified to suit the narrative.

He might have done the same in his other books as well. But for some reason these anecdotes don’t work here. After a couple of chapters, I found myself skipping the anecdotes directly to the part where he explained a particular law.

Me, every five minutes

But by the time I reached the fifth law, I found it quite impossible to carry on. And hence I closed the book, abandoning it for good. I very much would have wanted to like this book and learn from it. But unfortunately the denseness of the material really put me off. The author has rambled on and on to fill up the book with feel-good stories and then propose a one-page full fount of self-help advice. I feel a better idea would be to go through the bibliography that the author has given at the end and instead peruse some of those works. That would be a more productive use of your time.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life – Scott Adams

Scott Adams has created a brilliant and enduring comic strip that hits the right chord with everyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment. Through thousands and thousands of daily comic strips, he has portrayed the frustrations, foibles, the pettiness, and sometimes downright imbecility that one would encounter in their workplace. His earlier books such as the Dilbert Principle were downright hilarious in their own way.

So it was with this legacy that I picked up this “self-help” book by Scott Adams. And also I hoped that the book would be an in-depth memoir of the cartoonist. The book started out a bit slow. The first couple of chapters seemed incoherent. But as I read on, I came across a few very good points in how Scott Adams maintains his creativity and energy level. He talks about preferring systems to goals. He talks about having a positive attitude. He talks about being a simplifier instead of an optimizer. And so on. But as I read on, I wondered where was this going. I couldn’t make a clear head or tail of the book. Some chapters start and finish quickly, while others went on and on without seeming to make a point.

By the time I reached the book half-way I simply lost my patience. I didn’t find any substantial take-aways from the book. And so I’m abandoning this book. Never realized that a book from the writers of one of the funniest comic strips could be so boring. Maybe this book is yet one more thing that the author has failed at (and he will still win big).