Building on reading 75 books in 2014, I went for 100 books in 2015. And I was on schedule to hit this when I was whisked away to a cell in December, so alas did not hit the goal I was so excited about. I'll write more about a few useful tools to achieve goals in another post, but suffice it to say that reading at this volume was not half as difficult as I expected it to be - as with most things, it's all about daily progress. Another inescapable conclusion deals with a popular, Romantic conception about reading books in general - I've realized that while the narrative of curling up with a book at the exclusion of all other things is useful in many regards, it also weights the importance of each individual book too heavily. Reading voraciously (aka Alex and his 150 books in 2015) reduces the importance of each book and returns reading to what it should be - a pleasant daily activity, not something mysterious and esoteric. Lastly, reading this much on a wide variety of topics had the effect of making quite literally everything fascinating and interesting, particularly when you pair your reading with memory tools to remember everything you want to from books. Much more on that later.
Given that the theme of Fall 2015 was Iran, I started reading up on the place once again to round out on-the-ground observations with a deeper academic foundation via books written by Iranians about their own history. It started with The Mantle of the Prophet by Roy Mottahedeh (the year's favorite book - it traces the development of Persian identity going back thousands of years and is beautifully written), Islam and Revolution I: Writings and Declarations from Imam Khomeini (1941-1980), The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern US-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah by Baqer Moin. What is to be Done: The Enlightened Thinkers and an Islamic Renaissance by Ali Shariati was an important insight into 1970s political thinking. Thirst: A Novel of the Iran-Iraq War by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi was a pleasant work of Iranian fiction. And Combat Memoirs of Iranian Air Force Pilots by Kash Ryan was a useful collection of war stories from the Iran-Iraq War. While all of these works are available in English (and some are actually not available in Farsi) one of my goals in 2016 is to continue my move over to primary source documents written in Farsi, which was well underway while at Tehran University.
Some of this material built on The Venture of Islam, Vol 1: The Classical Age of Islam by Marshall G. S. Hodgson, where I discovered that the Persians - after their conquest by the Arabs - played a far larger role than I had known in the development of early Islamic governance structures of Mesopotamia, specifically in Baghdad. They also contributed more than their fair share of philosophical and religious constructs to the newly established powers of the land.
Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East by Shadi Hamid dealt with somewhat similar themes of power management by Islamist movements on the Sunni side of things, as did Gregory Johnson's The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia about Al Qaeda in Yemen (and we were lucky enough to get him on the podcast as a guest to talk through how he wrote that book). Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy by Jonathan Brown worked as a primer to piece together modern and classical interpretations of judicial decisions in the Islamic community (we managed to snag the author, a professor at Georgetown, on our podcast as well).
Several books about deep and painful issues in my dear America made it onto my Kindle, including Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America by Bob Herbert, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam, and On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman. Ta-Nehisi Coates and his Between the World and Me is a standalone work. The beautiful and classic Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois provided a base framework for some of these modern works. I didn't think Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle by Chris Hedges was half as good as many others considered it, but think I'm in a minority opinion there (I didn't see the proof for his incessant declarations indicating that the end of America is nigh, and did see consistent and selective use of data that has been pulled out of context). Several interesting books about American history more generally from this year include American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, James McPherson's The War That Forged A Nation: Why The Civil War Still Matters, and Joseph Ellis's The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin and I at long last crossed paths, and I'm glad I finally read that moving and haunting work of fiction. Other fiction works included Time's Arrow by Martin Amis, The Stranger by Albert Camus (again) to prepare for reading the new work based off of it, The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.
The first book I read in 2015 was Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon, which made me feel better about starting this blog given that I had long been ambivalent registering a website because I had been perfectly fine just sharing what I do with friends and family on Facebook given that most of it is not very interesting (and I write run-on sentences like this one). Getting (finally) a Twitter account at the same time as I picked up this website was also part of becoming what my colleague Alex generally calls 'being a good digital citizen.' Another friend simply told me it was time to grow up and get with the program, providing a different kind of inspiration.
#Christianity, Philosophy, Death, Morality, Life,
A few books on Christianity (including Elaine Pagel's Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, the classic Manual of a Christian Knight by Erasmus, and several books on the life of Jesus), a few thinking through the importance of death in our lives (the classic On Death And Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, The Worm at the Core: On The Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, and Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet, which was particularly beautiful with regards to remembering his intellectual life while incapacitated) and a bunch on productivity (Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown was great given - finally! - the emphasis on spaced repetition as a fool-proof learning method, as was How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery by Kevin Ashton) and language learning rounded out the year (for an interesting conversation with a language scholar, check out our podcast with Stephen Krashen). Laszlo Bock's Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead was interesting - he's the head of HR at Google and wrote about how to consistently hire and motivate great people. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book was a unique and at times hilarious read.
On the philosophy front, one book stands out. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking by William James, which was incredible. A collection of lectures he gave in my hometown of Boston, MA just over 100 years ago, he lays out his vision of a way of thinking that emphasizes the practical nature of the application of thoughts (for more, here's the Pragmatic Maxim by Charles Sanders Pierce). The fact that that sentence today is so unremarkable is testament to the astonishing adoption of this line of thinking, which Americans generally today claim to follow. Realizing this generally serves to highlight the presence of other schools of thought / traditions that have competed with this line of thinking, including Eastern, Analytic, Continental, etc. American culture is often derided for lacking depth - but this philosophic tradition of pragmatic thinking was invented inside the US and is now a global force, even if it built on achievements in Analytic thinking developed in Europe.
While I hadn't intended to read on the topic specifically, looking over the list of books, I did manage to get a few in on morality and ethics. Will Durant's Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War and God, Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers by Nancy Sherman, and Killing From the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War by Robert Meagher were all interesting reads. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being by William Davies hit some of these themes as well.
In terms of conducting research, Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials by Andrew Abbott is a top pick from the year (also a guest on the podcast - at a minimum, do see the show notes at 22:05 at the same link, if you've made it this far into this post than you're the kind of person who would find that interesting) given his militant defense of libraries and paper-based sources, which, as an almost entirely digital-source researcher despite my affinity for dusty archives, gave me pause.
Books that don't fit into the above categories - Sleep: A Very Short Introduction, and Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction. I read my first user's manual in ages - Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONThink 2, a simple how-to book to learn how to use that piece of software. Umberto Eco's How To Write A Thesis was useful for work I anticipate starting in the near future. The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey provided some nice food for thought about the future of higher education, and John Dewey's Experience and Education paired with that to provide a broader context. A book on the history of Ebola and another one by the same author on AIDS were nods to current events. The Parnas: A Scene From The Holocaust by Silveto Arietti in Italy was powerful and depressing. Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies by César Hidalgo got me to rethink how I look at objects (the author argues everything is simply packets of information). The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander about loss was particularly moving. The Vanity of Human Wishes, published in 1749, and Two Rambler Papers, published in 1750, were my picks to briefly depart from 20th century literature, both published by Samuel Johnson.
There's plenty more, including the Manhattan Prep GRE Math Books Series, but those do it for works that stood out.
The first book of 2016 was The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist, an excellently researched book that provided the backdrop to some of the unpleasantness I found myself stuck between a few months back.
This picture sums up my time in Iran in every way.
The last several years have been spent (among other things) studying related things across a few disciplines, with the desire of becoming a more well-rounded person. Through this, I've learned a few thematic things, and one of them is that improving one's vocabulary rarely gets old. This is generally because you get the joy of realizing that there are specific words dedicated to entire concepts - however abstract - that you may often think about. This word, discovered years ago, is one of them. An otherwise verbose and potentially vague concept, distilled into a few syllables. Beautiful.
And even better was pairing that thought straight back to a book I thoroughly enjoyed - The Conquest of Happiness (online here) by Bertrand Russell, which manages to be both of its time and occasionally timeless. After writing at length about the importance of cultivating the will in order to achieve our goals in life (for which it is an indispensable component), he then cautioned against relying on it excessively.
Traveling back to Boston in February, I stumbled across what seemed like an interesting book in the discounted section at a Barnes and Nobles. It was called The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class, and it was selling for $4.99. I picked it up (and its sister companion, The Intellectual Devotional: Modern Culture Edition).
It's a great concept, based on the devotional idea from various religions - a daily study of a very simple concept somehow related to a larger whole, broken out over 365 days. For the Abrahamic religions, it's a useful verse or story from the Torah, Bible or Quran. Playing this idea forward, the authors of the book decided to come up with 365 things that every reasonably educated (American) person should know. Each day is a separate idea / concept / name / piece of art / mathematical formula / etc.
As they make clear in the introduction, most people already vaguely know most of the information in this book, so much of the material stands as a refresher. But I found it incredibly helpful to do exactly what it promises to do - round out your education. And it spans an impressive range of topics covering the seven fields of knowledge: philosophy, mathematics and science, history, literature, music, fine arts, and religion.
It covers these topics well. I've never seen a book that so easily slides - in the name of culture no less - from Muawiyah I and the Rashidun Caliphs over to Fermat's Last Theorem over to the Tenets of Confucianism to Twelve-Tone Serialism to the Contents of Blood Platelets to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 to Analytic Philosophy to the Epic Mahabharata to the impact of the Magna Carta to the Venus de Milo to Brown vs. The Board of Education to Martin Luther's 95 Theses to the Parthenon to the Prophet Muhammad's Wives to X-Rays to The Prisoner's Dilemma to the date of D-Day to Marie Curie to Descartes to Igor Stravinsky to Sikhism to the Appomattox Court House to the Baroque Period to the States of Matter the Rosetta Stone over to Modernism (for a very small taste). Again, we're generally aware of many of these things, but this book sharpens our knowledge of it.
Selfishly, I wanted to liberate the information contained in this book. Generally, since starting Anki usage in 2012, I've increasingly come to see books as simply chunks of information waiting to be broken into pieces and then memorized. In any event, I spent the last two weeks transforming each page into one or multiple Anki cards as appropriate. For example, the one page on the Lascaux Cave paintings was turned into several questions:
- What are the oldest known paintings?
- Where are the Lascaux Cave paintings?
- When were the Lascaux Cave paintings discovered?
Or, for the Battle of Midway:
- When was the Battle of Midway?
- What did the Battle of Midway accomplish?
Paintings and works of art are also broken into multiple cards:
- Name of Painting
- Artist's Name
- Date of Painting
Beyond helping you study languages, I can't think of a better use of Anki than for this - to memorize basic facts that are highly useful to your everyday life and serve as an excellent (if simplistic) foundation for future knowledge. Knowing things like who designed the Guggenheim Museum and why it was so innovative for the world at that time will help your confidence as well - and help you fit it in Manhattan. Being able to effortlessly identify the paintings and sculptures below (among others) and their creators helps us to get a grasp of the pillars of culture while serving as a common reference point for discussion (this point was raised recently on Alex and I's podcast with Dr. Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago - a shrinking pool of common points familiar to everyone, which he argued are required if we're to talk to one another in any meaningful way).
And without further ado, here's the deck. Apologies for any mistakes - I've corrected a few typos since creating it, so no claims that it's perfect. Also, it's not 365 cards - I left out concepts too difficult to explain on a flashcard or that I deemed unnecessary ("What is Sound?"). All cards in the deck are tagged with "intellectualdevotional" to be easily added or separated from any more comprehensive study deck you may have.
Our latest guest on the podcast Alex and I run is Dr. Andrew Abbott, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. He talks about learning via the experience of his students and the general decline of research skills, as well as the researcher's relationship with the Internet. One particular quote I liked of his:
Checkout the show here.
Flipping through an (otherwise) useful story on IS and antiquities, saw this little note at the bottom here, which gave me pause. Not even for all the usual reasons about how different those two countries are (the numbers and key dates here, as at least a first step, though honestly probably better to just look at a map - you don't exactly learn much about a place from their key exports) but just for the sentence itself - that IS could have been in Iran at all, letting alone smashing antiquities. All in all, another baffling day for the US in the Middle East.
Listen to / download this show (and view the links to useful resources) here.
By: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick
Description: Our guest this week is Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia." Johnsen went to Jordan with the Peace Corps and first went to Yemen on a Fulbright Fellowship. In addition to his book, he has also written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and others. He holds a BA in History, an MA in Near Eastern studies from the University of Arizona and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. He was the 2013 - 2014 Michael Hastings National Security Reporting Fellow at Buzzfeed. We talk to Gregory about writing books, learning languages and how to get to know complicated places. Show notes are available at sourcesandmethods.com
This very simple chart is one of my favorite things to look at periodically - it carries enormous implications for learning and how we should study material. The best learning techniques take full advantage of simple facts outlined in this chart - we need to consistently be moving from the red line upwards to the top right line. One simple read on memory here.
Saw this movie (finally) two days ago and quite enjoyed it. And loved to learn that the thinking behind the film is generally based on principles that physicists agree could actually allow humanity to explore space.
It's about time I got around to starting one of these things. This blog will serve mainly as a landing place for notes from the books I read and clippings from interesting things around the internet. Thanks for reading.