The Intellectual Life

A toast to “bookception”

I came across a recommendation for The Intellectual Life while reading another excellent book on a related topic – Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you have been following my blog posts, you would know that one of my favourite ways to find new book recommendations is within existing books. Often such book recommendations go deeper and are more likely to be original content.

After having read both these books, I can confidently say that Cal Newport found a lot of inspiration from The Intellectual Life. He has extracted some of the best advice given in this book and packaged it in a way that people today can easily understand. And just as well.

The Intellectual Life by AG Sertillanges, a French philosopher, is not an easy book to get through. Written in the early 20th century, the style of writing is a little dated. You may not be able to understand certain passages the first time around. Thus you will need to definitely re-visit this book after a while.

However I would suggest you to stick with this book and giving it your full attention. P.S. if you’re struggling with attention, this book has certain tips for that as well. Talk about being meta. In fact, while reading this book, there were many meta moments that had me chuckling. For example, I had been making copious highlights and notes while reading this book. And then I came across the chapter where Sertillanges explains the right way to take notes. The author says,

Some people have so many [notes] and such full notebooks that they are prevented by a sort of anticipatory discouragement from ever opening them… Their imaginary treasures have cost much time and trouble, and they yield no return. Thank God there are many fine things in books; will you therefore copy down the whole National Library? Keep notes after thinking, and with moderation… Do not include the passage in your notes without letting some time elapse. Quietly, you will judge of the value of your harvest and store up only the good grain in your barns.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t put aside this book for a while as I felt embarrassed at my own incessant highlighting. But… but the juicy content… moving on anyhow.

The author kicks off by explaining what the virtues of an intellectual person should be. He goes on to describe how life should be organised so that one may keep a balance between isolating himself completely from the world and spending too much time in society doing frivolous activities. Once he has set the expectations of what an intellectual should do, the author moves on to explain how to best take up intellectual work. From my reading, I felt that the author talked about getting into a flow state, a concept that has been explored lately by multiple authors in how athletes and other high performing individuals manage to get much more work done than the rest of the ordinary folks.

Each part of the day has its own unique characteristics, says the author, and it is important to known and utilise these differences by doing the kind of work that is suitable to the time of day. For example, the author mentions that evenings should be used to prepare the work for the next day so that there is a sort of continuity of work between two consecutive days. This, he says, will definitely give a jump start as far as productivity is concerned. Of course, not everyone is built the same and each individual has his own body cycle – some of us being larks, others owls. But as long as one is able to understand his own body cycle, he should be able to make the most of the ebb and flow of energy and concentration levels throughout the day.

The author, AG Sertillanges
How can I make this book utterly brilliant but difficult to read at the same time?

Sertillanges then talks about the spirit of work, of the things that you need to keep in the background while undertaking your field of work. This will keep a sense of objectivity to the work as well as help you approach it in the right spirit. He debates the pros and cons of two different routes that one can take in their intellectual journey – the broad based approach, where one reads about multiple subjects/disciplines and tries to find interconnections and linkages between these fields (something that Charlie Munger has also advocated in his famous latticework of mental models), or the narrow-based approach, where one digs deeper into a subject that he has found interest in. Essentially whether to become a generalist or a specialist.

The latter part of the book deals with the preparation of work, how one should read, how to remember what was read, and how to take notes. Strangely but understandably, the author advises moderation in all these areas. One does not become an intellectual by reading more and more books. More important is how much one understands and is able provide original commentary upon. The same is with trying to memorise everything that one has read. Although the author meant this for an earlier time and age, today it becomes even more foolish to be a good memoriser, especially when there are multiple tools at our disposal to retrieve any information that is needed at any moment. The 24/7 connectedness of our lives has, I dare say, done away with our requirement of an extensive memory. Whether that is a good thing or bad, I leave it up to you. This chapter ends with a useful approach that the author prescribes to take and organise notes. People preferring to use the traditional paper-based note-taking may find this advice useful.

The author then deals with one of the most important parts of the book – the creative effort. For an intellectual, creation is paramount. Be it in the form of a book, a painting, a theorem, or simply original thought, creation is supposed to be the end result of your intellect. “One cannot be forever learning and forever getting ready.” This author lists down the qualities that are needed in order to create complete and useful works. Detachment, patience, persistence, and knowing your limits. These are the qualities that are discussed. If you’re running short of time or are frustrated with the ye olde language of the book, I would suggest that you read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 completely. These two chapters contain enough useful and actionable advice to help create a marked difference in your productive output.

The book closes with some advice on how to keep oneself sane in the quest for intellect. It is very easy to go overboard in this often lonely journey, as have many geniuses in their time. The author advises that one should not forget the rest of life in pursuing your goals. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other goals.” The secret according to the author is keeping a balanced view on life. Relaxation, exercise, social interactions, gratitude and a hopefulness towards success is what will keep you on the tracks when the going gets tough.

I felt so privileged to have come across this book and to have enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunately, this book is not available in a Kindle format so I will have to type out all the highlights and notes that I made in the margins to keep them better organised and referable. The Intellectual Life is probably going to be a book that I will keep going back to at times whenever I feel a creative block coming up. Beg, borrow or steal this book if you’re interest in knowing about the creative process or developing an intellectual mindset.

Featured Photo Credit: Aaron Andrew Ang
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Singapore Story

Last night I finished reading the first volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography – The Singapore Story. The book had such a poignant ending that I had to just close the book and just sit for a moment to feel unburdened. After all the months of fighting that LKY and his political party endured against opposing powers, he found himself in an unenviable position – that of a leader of a country that was pushed out of a federation and left to fend for itself, and I felt for him.

Lee Kuan Yew

The Singapore Story is the first of two volumes that LKY has written about his life and political career. The first book talks about how Singapore gained independence, or rather, how it was forced into it. Strange but true. The second book, From Third World to First, talks about LKY’s efforts in turning Singapore from an isolated backwater into one of the most livable cities in Asia. It is all the most impressive because at the time it was handed independence, Singapore was a third world nation, a small weak country with no major industries and no sense of self-reliance. At the time it was dependent on its neighbouring state even for its water supply.

Although there are many inspiring lessons from his leadership, there are few particulars that I liked about the book. First, I was quite impressed by LKY’s grasp of English. It definitely helped that he was schooled in English from an early age. His higher education in England also contributed to this fondness for English. And the book showcases his impeccable English and his expansive vocabulary. I found myself grabbing the dictionary multiple times throughout the book. One only has to watch his interviews available online to see how fluently he spoke English. In fact, it was only later during his political career that he started learning other languages such as Chinese and Malay, in order to better communicate with the citizens of his country.

There are two major events that can be said to have shaped LKY’s thinking and his political philosophy. These two events affected how he designed his political career and the principles on which he built Singapore. One was his time in England where he saw the British (his country’s colonisers) in their home land. And second was the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II. I feel it is not simply a coincidence that some of the most vivid and harrowing chapters of the book are that of LKY’s description of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. His authoritative streak in his government policies probably came from his observation of his oppressors and adoption, in parts, of their methods.

The book does get a bit dense in a few places. Singapore faced a lot of strikes in the 1950s, notably of which were the Hock Lee bus riots. Effectively, this period was also the time when LKY’s legal career took off. But I found that the author spent a lot of time describing these strikes, and how LKY helped the students and workers get their due against the establishment. Later on in the book, the author also describes in painful detail the tension and power-play between the communists parties of both Singapore and Malaysia and LKY’s own political party, the PAP.

By the time the Malaysian PM pushed him out of the Malaysian Federation, it was evident that they were quite intimidated by LKY’s popularity and his unwavering focus in bringing Malaysia together. There are lots of poignant moments in the book, especially the speech that he gives in the Malaysian Parliament and the press conference he was forced to have when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. One can watch snippets of these events online and it gives a clear sense of the pressure and responsibility that LKY faced at that time.

Singapore today is the envy of Asia, if not the world. And although criticized for some heavy handedness in his governance, LKY has definitely achieved brilliantly what he set out to do – make Singapore into one of the best cities to live in. Although this book does not chronicle how he did that, but it sets the background of how LKY found himself in that position and what events in his life influenced his thinking to turn Singapore into the place that it is today.

If you are a fan of biographies, then you will definitely love this book. It stretches a little too much in the middle. But I urge you to stay with it. And it will help you understand one of the most important and respected world leaders of the 20th century.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Wealthing like Rabbits

It is a well-known fact that rabbits multiply fast (For a detailed treatment, read this). So it is only apt to use a metaphor that is widely known and accepted by most people and apply it to the concept of multiplying your wealth in the same manner. The author has even proposed making wealthing a verb, and hence the title of the book – Wealthing like rabbits.

Continue reading “Wealthing like Rabbits”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Big Nine by Amy Webb – Book Review

I stumbled upon this book on Amazon when I saw it among the top books in Artificial Intelligence. I was exploring this topic for finding good coding books on the subject. I have always been interested in knowing more about AI ever since it got into prominence and increasing use in the past few years. Continue reading “The Big Nine by Amy Webb – Book Review”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

In Defense of Food – Book Review

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This is in essence the entirety of the advice in the book. Ok, so should you skip the book and instead keep the above sentence in mind? No, because unless you have defined what food is, you would probably continue with your old eating habits. Therefore I fully sympathize with Michael Pollan when he says that it is surprising that he needs to defend or even define food. But it is not that simple. Here’s what I mean.

Imagine meeting your long lost friend from the past – someone who lives in the 19th century, or even the early 20th century. You take him to a supermarket and you ask him to “Buy some food.” Then imagine giving the same advice to someone who lives in the present. When both of them are done with their shopping, you would definitely realize that what food means to your present-day friend is way different than what it means to your historic friend from the past. Your long lost friend would have probably picked up fruits, vegetables, and some meat (if he could have recognized it in the slick packaging), while your present day friend would have probably picked up a few packets of Lays, his favourite soda and an assortment of candies. What the average person today thinks of food is way different than its traditional definition.

That is why reading the rest of the book is important. Today, there are more food-like substances gracing the shelves of our supermarkets than actual good old food. Every year thousands of new variations of old products are introduced, each bringing more extreme changes to the chemistry of the product. Today in America the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented—and dizzying. Each of these carefully engineered products are stuffed down the consumers’ throats through rampant marketing and advertising, much of it questionable or even unethical.

There are quite a few thought provoking arguments that the author has made in defense of food. Years ago what you ate was a function of your culture, or what your parents or grand-parents said was good. Lately, mom has been put to the sidelines. Over the last several decades, mom lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers. And just because the new coach is wearing a slick custom-fit suit or has a long list of educational qualifications, consumers are lapping up his advice. But unfortunately, in the long term the new coach’s advice is only harming the player.

The author argues that this new coach – the food marketers, and their game plan – the Western Diet, is one of the biggest culprit for the increased rate of disorders such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. The human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them.

The author even goes on to make a bold claim questioning the entire science of nutrition because it is a flawed science that knows much less than it cares to admit. The focus on individual nutrients and their importance is seen in isolation by these nutrition scientists with the result being that food has been de-constructued into its partial constituents and then repackaged in convenient boxes supposedly fortified again by their nutrients. But the author argues that these reconstituted food-like substances cannot give the same benefits as the original food that they were derived from. So, eating oranges (with all its fiber) may be healthier than gulping down packaged orange juice (which may be nothing other than sugar, artificial flavouring and preservatives). Another example the author gives is of milk where scientists have failed to replicate the entire spectrum of nutrients that milk as a natural liquid provided compared to baby formula.

The scary thing about the whole matter is that inspite of this happening in full view of the government, the government is actually toothless to keep a strict check on such practices. Take for example the famous food pyramid, the US government has failed to completely avoid the influence of powerful industries that influence the advice that it gives out to the citizens. The story of the food pyramid is something that has been explored in Sugar Salt Fat, which is yet another excellent read for finding out about the power that corporations wield today in order to push their products further and more aggressively. This makes it clear that it is in the individual’s best interest to make sure that he or she makes the right eating choices because neither the government nor the food companies are going to do it for them.

The second part of the book expands the author’s single sentence advice further. The great thing about Pollan’s approach is that he does not advice you to track your macro-nutrients to the last ounce, nor is it obsessed on counting calories. The advice simply follows the traditional advice that would be prevalent in many cultures across the world, the kind that is given by your grandmother (and that you’re more likely to ignore). Michael Pollan carefully defines what food is. And he does that using simple and memorable rules. For example, DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. This sentence is so simple that it almost seems obvious. Yet many people today would happily pickup something that comes in a colorful box, with its healthy benefits screaming from its packaging. Although the author doesn’t advice people to turn vegetarians, he does suggest that plants should be the major constituents of a healthy diet. Lastly, the adage of staying a little bit hungry at each meal is presented to help slow aging and prolong lifespan in animals.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The author gives out the essence of the book within the first few lines itself. Yet the entire book is an interesting read to understand how food has mutated into an attractive yet unhealthy mixture of carefully engineered chemicals . Food has become less food, more foodish. Only once you distinguish this unholy mass from good old fashioned food, it will be possible for you to start eating your way to health.

This was my second read of the book and I’ll probably keep coming back to it a few more times in the years ahead. This is a must read if you’re planning to start out a new diet or even if you simply want to be more conscious and aware of what you put on your plate today.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

New Erotica for Feminists Book Review

The title of the book itself screams that this book is not going to be like any other book published before. Erotica? We got millions of books on that. Feminism? Yes that is a hot and burning topic today. But erotica for feminists? Librarians are going to have a hard time deciding which shelf this book goes on. At first the witty title only piques my curiosity but then the blurb takes over,

He calls me into his office and closes the door . . . to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.

When you’re chuckling even before you open a book, that book surely deserves a read. And this book did deserve the same.

I picked this book up for a lighter read while I attempt to plow through a mammoth book that I have taken up as my first 2019 read. That other book is Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer prize winning history of oil, The Prize. It is such a detailed and lengthy book that I have to take regular breaks in order to keep my sanity. The scope of the book and the number of characters, if not protagonists, is overwhelming. But I’ll complete it in a few weeks.

So back to the topic of erotica. The last I remember reading erotica is a teenager, with raging hormones and an utter need to pick up anything related to sex. Much water has flown under the bridge since then. The hormones have mellowed and the genre is no longer a surreptitious pleasure for me anymore. But this book belongs to a newly invented genre. As they say, invention is simply taking two or more existing things and combining them in different ways to create something entirely new. Take erotica, of which there is enough literature (most of it bad), take feminism, which is quite relevant in today’s times, and combine the two, and poof. You have a brand new genre that is completely unique and if tackled correctly, can be quite enjoyable and instructive as well.

Four people have attempted the same in this book. The founders of the comedy/satire website, Belladonna  are the authors of this quirky book. The idea came out of a series of group chats that the authors developed and structured into a book. The authors were particularly frustrated by the lack of reach of feminism in many spheres of life even today. The outcome is a series of short montages of erotica that completely overturn the story and its ending. It’s like having an M Night Shyamalan twist in every montage.

I was initially confused as I was expecting a few stories that ran across pages. Instead when each page started with a new setting, I was left turning pages back and forth at first. A few episodes down the line I realized (and appreciated) that the goal of the authors was to cover many situations as possible, and thus, crisp and terse montages were the way to go. And they do work. Just when the reader expects a certain punchline or the mini-plot to go one way, the feminist twist to the story takes it off to an unexpected direction. I would not be honest if I said that I could predict the punch-line in every story. A part of me was disappointed by the sudden break in the sensuous build-up, but a part of me smiled as well. Yes, women do face discrimination in this world, and this book showcases that in a subtle, yet thoughtful manner.

I never thought that one day I would analyze erotica (and it is difficult to call this erotica, because nothing erotic happens in the end). But nevertheless this book is a fresh and unique way to tackle a sensitive subject. It is designed to bring out the “Oh, I didn’t know men do that”, and I’m sure there will be certain montages where the male readers of this book may realize that, “hmm, maybe this is how it feels”. If this book evokes such realizations from the reading public, I’m sure it will have achieved its purpose to a very large extent. The authors pretty much say the same thing at the end of the book,

“We just used an entire book of comedy to point out some ways in which women are expected to lived up to society’s impossible and often conflicting standards.”

Satire is meant to bring out the inadequacies, the flaws, of a certain aspect of society without degrading it into a rant. If done correctly, it is a brilliant tool and an enduring one. If not, it falls flat on its face and loses its purpose. This book uses satire effectively to take on a very important concept of gender equality and does a pretty good job of it. Pick this book up if you’re curious about how women face sexism in day to day situations, and how they wish the world would instead behave.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Atomic Habits by James Clear – Book Review

Sometimes, but rarely, in your book reading journey comes a book that impacts you so much, that you can’t wait to end the book just so that you can write a review of the book. At times the book is so brilliant that you want to praise it profusely, or sometimes it is so horribly bad that you want to get done with it and close the chapter forever, and leave a scathing review for wasting your time. This book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, is clearly one of the former.

Although this is by no means the first book written on the psychology or science of habits, I have a feeling that it will become a very important one in the future. I’ll come to why. But first let me talk about the first book that was actually written, or at least the first book that broke down habits, and how they can be made or unmade, widely known to the general public. It was the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I have read that book a couple of years back and while it was a groundbreaking book, it didn’t do much for me. Somehow I felt I didn’t connect with the book. For some reason I felt that The Power of Habit belonged more in the Psychology/Reference section instead of Self-Help.

That is why I loved Atomic Habits. For someone looking to get an idea of why they have certain habits or how they can change their habits, this book would be a much more effective recommendation. Because it explains the science as well as sets out clear, concise and actionable steps to achieve the change that you’re looking for. The book had so many aahaa moments that I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone around me. Frankly speaking, it took me my entire willpower to stop a stranger on the street and exhort him to read this book ASAP. Well maybe, that is what I am doing just now, not on the street but on the Internet!

From one of the author’s own interviews, this is what a reader had to say about the book. “[Atomic Habits] seems a LOT more practical and focused on guiding people on how to actually make changes. Power of Habit is more journalistic, though it does have the appendix at the back that talks about how to implement habit changes.”

According to the author, there are four laws that can be used to create good habits or to break bad ones. The book follows the same structure. It starts with talking about the importance of making small changes in your routine to improve yourself. There is a well repeated statistic on how a 1% improvement every day can bring compounded changes over a long period of time. It then introduces the habit feedback loop where each habit follows the cue -> craving -> response -> reward cycle.

Each law focuses on one of these four aspects. The crux of the book is that a habit can be changed by targeting one (or more) of these steps. The beauty of the book (and the feedback loop) is that this concept itself is complete. If you can understand this concept thoroughly, you’ve read enough of the book. You don’t need to read further. But of course I would still recommend you to completely read the book. Because it is that good. There are many sections that will resonate with you, especially if you have tried earlier to create habits and have struggled to follow through on them. The language used by the author is clear, practical, and not exceedingly anecdotal.

By the time I reached the 2nd law, I was ready to start habit stacking, temptation bundling and all the other cool-sounding (and effective) keywords that are used to describe a particular strategy. I feel sheepish to say that for the longest time that this book felt like a template self-help genre book that was high on fluff and low on content. This was my perception before having opened the book and even reading a single page of it. In fact I actively avoided reading it for as long as I could. But given the time of the year, when new year resolutions are being prepared, this felt like a suitable read. And boy am I glad I picked this book up. I’m pretty sure that by using the concepts in this book you can create resolutions that you can stick to till the end of the year, instead of seeing them evaporate by mid March.

I can’t wait to finish this book, and then go through all my highlights and notes to prepare a one pager. A cheat sheet if you will (Update: What do you know? There’s a cheat sheet already available at the end of the book!) This is a book that I will be rereading multiple times. Atomic HABITS is in my books, a clear winner and an addiction killer. Go read it before you create your new year resolutions for 2019.

Update: I did finish this book well in time for the new year and am ready to make my habit checklist. At the end of the book, there is a section that I found really strange. The author has given a few additional tips and techniques for people further wishing to explore the subject of effective habit creation. These tips, although useful and interesting, feel disjointed and feel out of place in this excellent book. Nevertheless you can choose to read it or ignore. Either way it won’t hurt you.

Star rating – 5/5
What next can you read – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Nudge by Richard Thaler.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Solution To Social Anxiety by Dr Aziz Gazipura

I have always identified to some firm of shyness or social anxiety disorder (SAD) since I was a kid. I hated going to events, parties, gatherings – effectively any place where there will be lots of humans. And considering that Earth is full of them humans, that put me shit out of luck. I dreaded meeting not only strangers but even people I knew. As long as the number of people was big, I shied away from such social events.
So it was a no-brainer for me to pick this book up. I have read books on shyness/SAD before but the problem about many books, especially in the self-help genre, is that most of them are filled with anecdotal fluff, or pointless exercises in a workbook style. And AFAIK I don’t recall finishing any book on this topic that was substantial in content.
However I’m glad that I gave this book a chance. What I immediately liked about the book was that unlike most self-help books it is not full of fluff. The author has not chosen to fill the book with random stories or pointless exercises. And for that I’m thankful. The book is a quick read and for its compact size (only 230 pages), packs in quite a punch.

Getting to the point

The book is divided into two parts. The first part talks about the problem – the causes of social anxiety and how people with SAD tend to think and behave. The author immediately jumps into listing the major causes of why a person with social anxiety feels that he is not up to the mark of his peers. Many a times, the overhang of having an ugly experience in the past overshadows the present day situations. People with SAD have a very strong and ruthless self-critic that berates every endeavor by the individual in connecting with others. Hence shy people tend to reject their self worth even before (if ever) other people do so. As they say, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
The second part, obviously, is about the solution to social anxiety. Dr Gazipura starts by explaining what people with social confidence do instead of sabotaging their self. It is not that people who are confident do not have thoughts of inability or in-adequateness rise in their minds. They do as well. However, they do not let such thoughts overwhelm their actions.

So what’s the secret?

Effectively, it is a developing a habit of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. The author talks about a set of clear and effective steps to overcome this fear as and when it is happening. Being aware (or mindful) of one thoughts is one way that the author suggests this can be done. But first one needs to accept oneself even before making any such effort. The book also mentions that shy people have a fear of being vulnerable and that they prevent themselves from getting hurt by avoiding such situations. However, the author believes that such people need to put themselves in such situations and consciously think and behave differently than their automatic patterns of thought have done till now.
All in all, the book does a very good job of mapping out the most common causes of social anxiety and the steps one can take gradually to decrease or reduce the feeling of shyness. Reading this book made me realize that there is no rocket science to this. Plain old common sense and getting out of your comfort zone. Although this book by itself may not be as powerful as some others, I still feel that it is quite a useful book because of its succinct message and its useful suggestions. Read it as a starting point for your journey towards becoming more socially confident.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Behavioral Investor by Daniel Crosby – Book Review

Mention the word behavioural pscyhology and a few well-known names come to mind. Kahneman, Baumeister, Thaler, and to a certain extent, Taleb are just a few examples. So it was a bit surprising when I came across a book by a relatively unknown author. But given that investing is a passion, and books are my weakness, I had to read this book. Continue reading “The Behavioral Investor by Daniel Crosby – Book Review”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail