Despite 2020 being a very difficult year to navigate, with the abundance of time spent at home, and no social activities for distractions, I managed to read 16 books, twice the amount of last year. A major difference of my book selection this year vs previous years, is that I read a lot more fictions this year. I think a part of it was due to a sense of escapism. Reading about others lives or fictitious stories helped me escape from the depressing, and at times, boring reality that I live in. While unable to travel this year like I used to, reading books turned out to be a great getaway and substitution. (Though I really hope that I will be able to travel again in 2021.) Below I list the books as well as my thoughts on them.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
How wicked is that the first book I read in 2020 is about novel about a pandemic, and it ended up setting the theme for the rest of year? Jose Saramago is a Nobel Literature Laureate, and Blindness is one of his most well known books. It is about how a guy went blind suddenly, and anyone who looked at him also became blind. Soon his eye doctor and various other people that he interacted with fell pray to this weird infectious blindness, and they had to be quarantined at an abandoned hospital. The number of newly admitted people kept increasing over the days, and the food supply became limited. People had to fight over the limited resources, and the ugly and greedy sides of human nature were revealed. Later a small group made it outside the abandoned hospital, only to find the rest of the society are all blind as well. I remember reading it in January and thinking that thank god I am not going through such a devastating pandemic. Well, I didn’t have to wait long. In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I kept having flashbacks. For example, people hoarding toilet papers reminded me of a scene in the book, where a guy in the quarantine had a gun, and he demanded all the food to be handed to him. Both in the book and in reality, people dug many graves. It was a fantastically written and very descriptive book, but it was chilling to read especially in 2020.
The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara
I first watched a movie with the same title on a flight, and was eager to read more about it. I probably don’t need to introduce who Che Guevara is. When Che was young, he studied to be a doctor so that he can help people. However, when touring south America on a motorcycle with his best friend, he witnessed the inequality in other parts of the world first hand, and it repurposed his life. While being a doctor can help people and save lives, he realized in order to help people at a larger scale, something fundamental needs to be changed within the society. It was very insightful to read about his thoughts from the first person perspective. Also I think it is important to note the impact traveling can have on a person’s world view and value system.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
This book was discarded among a pile books by someone in my building, so I thought why not give it a read. I have watched many YouTube videos of Alain de Botton, and have always enjoyed his philosophy. While this book has some good content, it is written for probably younger people who are new to philosophy, so I don’t think I derived much from it personally.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (again)
March and April was the darkest time for me emotionally. The world was turned upside down by the pandemic, and I was worrying so much about a vulnerable family member. Reading Meditations again helped me calm down and stop worrying so much. It is important to recognize what is within my control, optimize for that, and not to be disturbed by what’s outside of my control. Meditations is a book I will always return to when I am lost or disturbed in life, for each time I re-read it I learn something new and profound.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
This was a very long book, close to 900 pages. But it was immensely enjoyable to read, and I had written a separate blog post about it, so I won’t talk too much about it here. It was very informative and gave a holistic viewpoint of the female gender.
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
I posted on Facebook asking friends what I should read next, and Hermann Hesse was recommended by several people, so I thought I should give him a try. He was also a Nobel Literature laureate, and coincidentally last summer when I visited Germany I passed through his hometown without knowing it. I picked Steppenwolf because while he wrote the book in his 50s, he noted that he was slightly annoyed that people in their 20s enjoyed it so much. So I thought “Challenge Accepted”. The first half of the book describes a middle aged lonely man, it was painfully slow and I thought about abandoning it at various points. But I powered through and was eventually rewarded, because the second half was so such a delightful treat. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I recommend it to anyone who is up for a (literal) adventure.
A Happy Death, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
I used a search engine to find authors similar to Hermann Hesse, and found Albert Camus, also a Nobel Literature Laureate. He is one of the most prominent write in existential philosophy, absurdism in particular. The Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophy book, it was dry to read a lot of the times, but it was sobering when he pointed out that most people spent their lives doing repeated work, and rarely do they realize the absurdity of it. He argues that life does not have a purpose inherently, only we try to assign it ourselves.
A Happy Death and The Stranger are 2 novels. They are very similar, because A Happy Death was his first book, written in his 20s, but he never published it in his lifetime. A lot of scenes from The Stranger was borrowed, but much more well written in my opinion.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe
This is a short and bittersweet romantic tragedy. I really liked it, and I have since bought a whole collection of Goethe to read in 2021. This book is a semi-autobiography of Goethe himself, like Werther, he also fell in love with a married lady, but thankfully he did not commit suicide like Werther. Werther style suicide was later mimicked by many, and the book was banned for some years in Europe because the government because of this.
Flash Boys by Michael Lewis
This book was randomly recommended to me on Amazon. It was such an engaging read that I finished it in a week. Similar to “Bad Blood” that I read last year, the authors closely follows a scientific and societal phenomenon and writes about it comprehensively. Flash Boys writes about the rise of frequency trading on the Wall Street. Despite not knowing anything about trading whatsoever, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and understood everything. The author was really good at explaining financial concepts, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about financial market / trading.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
This book is on every list of “10 (or 100) must read books in your life”, and after reading it, I can see why. The first half of the book, the author describes his experience at a Nazi concentration camp, it was so shocking to read about all the terrible things that he endured. It was even more chilling when I noticed parallels in the psychology of concentration campers and me going through the pandemic. I will have to write a separate blog post about it when I have time. In the second half of the book, the author discusses his theory of using meaning of life as an approach for psychotherapy. This is the complete opposite of what Albert Camus promotes. I found this book profoundly inspirational.
The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova
This is the autobiography of the one and only Casanova, and it was so fun to read. while he has a reputation for being a womanizer, and 1/3 of the book describes his romantic encounters, he is actually a very accomplished scholar and diplomat. This is such a gem in European literature.
Chemistry, a Novel by Weike Wang
This book was recommended to me by a friend. The author was a PhD student, and in the novel she describes her life in the lab, her struggle with imposter syndrome, and her identity crisis. She immigrated from China to the States when she was 5, and I went through the same thing but at age 15. I found much of the material relatable. It is such a page turner that I finished the book in 2-3 days.
1984 by George Orwell
This is another one of the “must read” books, and one of the more profound books on this list. A totalitarian dystopia was craftily described, and much of the book chilled me to the bones. The first half was so depressing that I had to put down the book at times to get away from it and remind myself that it is only a novel. Reading about a dystopia is definitely a good way to feel better about living in one. I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read it so I won’t go into the plot much. But it was a very thought-provoking read for me.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Riding on the high of reading 1984, I read Brave New World next, which is supposed to be similar to 1984. But I was disappointed. While there are similarities, Brave New World does not go into nearly the depth of 1984, and made me feel like it was missing something. I feel like if I had read it first, I would’ve enjoyed it more. But reading it after 1984 and hoping it would be as fascinating was not a good way to approach it.