This year I was only able to read 16 books, dismally, down from 22 books that I have finished in 2019.
I was expecting that I would surpass my 2019 reading list during the nation-wide lockdown, but as the days go by I was stuck in an inertia; spending a lot of time to nonproductive activities or lingering to difficult ideas from the books that I’m reading.
Also, I’ve devoted some of my reading time to writing and studying Spinoza’s Philosophy.
And, here are my top 5 books for 2020, arranged not in any particular order.
Language in Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa. 1939.
This book introduced me to Semantics; it is the study of meaning, reference or truth, according to Wikipedia. Hayakawa defined Semantics as ‘the study of human interaction through communication’.
Semantics is widely defined in scholastics term as a branch of linguistic and logic that deals with meaning. In a concise definition, semantics, deals with the relationship between language and reality. It involves the examination of, aside from examining the inherent meaning of words, spatial, geographical or cultural, and temporal aspect of the meaning of words.
So the meanings that we derived from reality transformed or made into words or common language are just symbols. And symbols are mercurial and ambiguous, that does not truly represent the true reality. In other word, most words that we used to communicate have no definite meaning at all, as far as the true nature of reality is concerned; and according to Hayakawa this is where human misunderstanding begins.
I believe that semantics will help humanity to solve problems particularly in mending disagreements through the realization that most of the words that we used in our discourse about matters such as politics, economics and societal issues are inherently subjective and indefinite. Owing to our confusion between the reality and the symbols that we represent as the ‘reality’, the realization that a lot of abstraction occurs as we transform words out of reality will allow us to listen intently to others that have different ideas and views apart from our own, and sort things out peacefully.
“To perceive how language works, what pitfalls it conceals, what its possibilities are, is to comprehend a crucial aspect of the complicated business of living the life of a human being.” – S.I. Hayakawa
Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. 1944.
This book is an anthology of short passages or texts taken from sacred books of major religions of the world, and Huxley systematized and examined each themes that are common to all religions like salvation, repentance, good vs. evil, faith, charity, immortality, mortification and etc.
I like Huxley’s detailed definition of the Perennial Philosophy. He stated that, Perennial philosophy, is “The metaphysics that recognises a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethics that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being— the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.”
Each philosophy developed by individuals across different time periods and geographic locations have unique view of the reality and about living. The development of a philosophy by its proponent is dependent on various factors, like, the philosopher’s life experiences, educational background, historical settings or zeitgeist of the time and etc. But Perennial Philosophy developed independently from these factors.
The similarities of themes across major religions of the world will make you think on why the pioneers of these religion, separated by time, geography, cultures, and etc., have come up with similar themes ( salvation, repentance, charity, devotion, faith, and etc.) described by Huxley as a mode of thinking or psychology attuned to “the divine reality”.
This book has changed my views about spirituality. I think spirituality is a mental phenomena that still lies in the minds of each individuals, but if various individuals across generations and geographic settings were able to grasp or recognize the “divine reality” we can assume that maybe it has a basis in the material reality?
Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein. 1922.
Albert Einstein is known as a pillar of modern physics. Behind the monumental contributions that he made to the understanding of reality is a simple, unassuming individual, who shied away from the limelight, and prefers the comfort of solitude.
Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions are laden with philosophic views, letters to colleagues about topics ranging from physics, economics, and social issues. I found out his deep aversion to material wealth and the cult of individual.
In his letters addressed to his friends, he always maintained the importance of sharing of knowledge, and constant dialogue in any disputes be it in the sciences or social issues.
On social issues, he promoted active pacifism, that, in order for the society to prevent future conflicts, every individual must solve the differences through dialogue, peaceful activism; and to dissuade leaders from nationalism and militarism. Einstein also argued his preference fo socialism.
When I think of Einstein now, my thought is no longer confined to associate his famous equation or to the theory of relativity, but to a simple, virtuous man with a brilliant mind that seeks to understand not just the nature of reality but also of understanding humanity.
“But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people–first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.” -Albert Einstein
Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil. 2017.
Most history books narrates about individuals and events in the past that have shaped the present, and that are -to-be. But no one has ever looked into the role of energy, and this I think misses a lot of our understanding about the transformations that occurred in our civilization.
The modern world with it’s dizzying skyscrapers, convoluted roads and night lights seen as star-like studded earth, will not look like the way it is now without the energy.
Our modern civilization is heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels. Any civilization, like organisms, requires energy for its viability or perpetuity.
In this book, Smil provided detailed technical examination of the role of energy in our civilization: its usage, conversion, transformation and adverse effects (pollution/climate change) it had made since the prehistoric time up to the possible future world.
Looking at history in the perspective of energy made me realized the seemingly negligible role of any individuals in shaping the course of history. But I also believed in the role of dynamism between energy and human knowledge in transforming the world of today and that of the future.
This is the question that came up in my mind while reading this book, ‘What if the fossil fuels were never discovered at all? What will the world look like now? Most historians and economists believed that the economic system of free market or capitalism made the modern world with its perks of: material wealth, the middle class, universal education, and healthcare system. But I realized that all of these things are just a mere illusion, considering our dependency on fossil fuels to gain all of these benefits in our society.
Indeed, all of the material wealth in this world in a sense came from energy. The energy that we can trace all the way back to the Sun. Remember that fossil fuels were once an organic matter like plants that contains stored energy from the sun in the form of carbon molecules, and subsequently stored beneath the ground for eons.
“Energy use is merely a means to many rewarding ends: economic security, education, health.” Vaclav Smil
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Mcfarlane. 2019.
This is a beautiful nature-travelogue in the ‘Underland’ that ponders about the man’s essence with the geologic time scale. The Underland are spaces that most humans don’t usually see and not usually conscious of. These are the caves, mining pits, undercities, underground rives, nuclear waste storage site, places below the glaciers,and etc. Written in a beautiful descriptive and deep contemplative on how these places were formed over eons, and what humanity’s impact will look like hundreds or thousands of centuries from now, when humans may no longer exist.
The author’s thoughts and panoramic description of the places will transport your mind to the places that he has been through, from the briny air of the salt mines beneath the North Sea and the deep crevasse over the glaciers of Greenland, as a result of climate change. Reading this book makes me ponder about the physical marks, as well the unseen essence, that I’m going to left behind when I’m long gone. It makes me think of how should I spend the exquisite time to live purposely or meaningfully.
Thinking in Deep Time allow us to set our minds about the future generations in lieu of our present actions. What should be our actions now? Can we also show mercy and compassion not just for the present, but also for the posterity?
“ As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping. The Anthropocene asks of the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good Ancestors?’” – Robert Mcfarlane
This year I’m planning to read 30 books! Hopefully, I might be able to finish all of them in time, and share my top 5 for the year 2021.