Book Recommendations – Volume VII

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to do some good reading. Each of these three books are enjoyable, interesting and which hold different lessons about the state of the world and humanity at large. These three books come highly recommended from myself and are well worth the time invested to read them. If you are looking for a few books to read, as spring becomes summer, below you will see the 7th edition of my book recommendations which highlights Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and A World in Disarray by Richard Haass.

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1.) Submission by Michel Houellebecq is an enjoyable and humorous take on French politics in the 21st The French author is known for his edgy content and his nihilistic take on modern life. Houellebecq is not known for writing about satire and for those who are a fan of his works, this novel was a sharp turn away from the other topics that he usually focuses on. Personally, I haven’t read the other novels associated with this writer but I really enjoyed this satirical look at French politics.

The premise of the novel is that there is a new political crisis in France. In order to stave off a win in the 2022 French presidential elections from Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, the Socialist party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party are forced to align with a newly formed Muslim Brotherhood party led by its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes in order to achieve victory as a coalition. The main character, Francois, is a middle-aged Literature professor at the Sorbonne is going through his own mid-life crisis. While he enjoys teaching at the university and cavorting physically with some of his students, he struggles to find meaning in his life and is distraught at the loss of both of his parents. This is on top of the fact that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party will affect his ability to keep his full pension and be able to keep his job.                                                                                                                       

On top of the probability of losing his teaching job at the Sorbonne as well as the fleeing of his steady Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, who leaves France for Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism, Francois contemplates suicide but decides instead to seek refuge in a monastery in the town of Martel. Ironically, Francois, after going through a self-imposed exile for a few weeks, comes to realize that the world didn’t end when the Muslim Brotherhood party takes power. Instead of fighting the changes going on at the Sorbonne, Francois is intrigued by the fact that if he converts or ‘submits’ to Islam, he will be able to still find a prestigious job, keep his lucrative pension, and be able to have a few wives chosen for him since polygamy had become legal in France. The main character, Francois, is a spectator to the changing political landscape rather than an active player.

While this book is known for being controversial, I find it to be full of slapstick humor in making fun of the main character’s overly dramatic take on life. Francois is a mere spectator whose desire for alcohol, food, and sex overrides any core convictions that he may have politically. Mainly, Houellebecq is making fun of French intellectuals who can’t be bothered to invest in them beyond their own hedonistic desires.

His take on the political situation in France is an obvious dramatization and I don’t believe that he was looking to ruffle any feathers. The rise of an Islamic nationalist party in France in 2022 would be completely unrealistic which is what the author was making clear in focusing on the political satire associated with that idea. Overall, it is a witty, entertaining novel, which tells us more about human nature than it does about the precarious state of French politics in the 21st century.

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2.) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of the best books I have ever read. In all likelihood, this is the kind of book that you can come back to multiple times and still enjoy it. This is not your average history book in that it focuses more on the big ideas and developments associated with each era of human history rather than diving into the endless details and events related to each period. Instead of a 4,000 page behemoth focused on human history, Harari does a great job in condensing the how and why of Homo sapiens into only 400+ pages.

While I was reading this book, it didn’t feel laborious at all and was a real page-turner. Harari’s main argument in the book is that the homo sapien (the modern human) were able to dominate the Earth because of our ability to cooperate and share with each other in large numbers. The downfall of pre-homo sapiens such as the Neanderthals along with various other extinct animals and plants was the result of the Cognitive Revolution, which occurred at around 70,000 BCE.

The exciting developments related to the establishment of shared human myths and imaginary mainstays such as money, religions, human rights, nation-states, etc. directly tied to Homo Sapien culture put sapiens on the path to long-term survival and flourishing. Harari convincingly argues that the history of humanity can be broken down into four parts: the Cognitive Revolution (the development of imagination), the Agricultural Revolution (the formation of collective societies), the Unification of humankind (the rise of empires and nations), along with the Scientific Revolution (the emergence of scientific knowledge) which is the stage where sapiens currently find ourselves in.

Harari believes that the rise of Homo sapiens as a species has had significant consequences on the planet we all inhabit as well as the harsh treatment of animals that has resulted from being at the top of the food chain. Also, while the Agricultural revolution led to the creation of large human societies and eventually sprawling empires, the shift from hunter gathering to farming caused the human diet and lifestyle to suffer as a direct result. Human beings after agriculture became less self-reliant and had to rely on a king, an emperor, or the state itself to provide food, water, and other necessities. Out of all of the developments in human history, the rise of agriculture was a fundamental shift in our thinking, which still affects us in the modern society we all inhabit today.

Overall, Sapiens is an excellent, informative, and timely read that I would recommend to anyone. It’s an easy book to pick up and a hard one to put down. I am currently reading another book of his, which is the sequel to Sapiens, this book and the one that follows it just shows how good of an author and intellectual that Mr. Harari is.

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3.) A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Older by Richard Haass is a refreshing take on the topsy-turvy world of international relations in this current period. Mr. Haass, who is currently the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has advised previous U.S. presidents and worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department during the Bush Administration, is an expert on world affairs who has published multiple books and this one in particular could not be timelier.

While the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world both economically and militarily, it has started to lose ground in terms of its ability to sway world opinion and events due to failures of U.S. foreign policy in the early years of the 21st century. The lack of success in denuclearizing of the Korean peninsula, the rise of Iran as a regional power in the Middle East, and the mixed results of the East Asia ‘pivot’ from the Obama administration have created a worldwide power vacuum. Also, due to the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both U.S. prestige and values were harmed by these adventures in the Middle East. Haass argues correctly that the post-WWII order that the United States and its European allies helped create is fraying due to the failure of its leaders, institutions, and policies to maintain stability across the globe.             

There are real challenges to contend with that the United States won’t be able to solve on its own. The threat of climate change, the challenge of cyber-security, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons require a unified approach that has been lacking between the U.S. and its European allies. The events of Brexit, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ isolationist policies, and the great power rivalries going on between Russia, China, and India have thrown the world in disarray. The days where the U.S. could have great influence and sway over events around the world may be drawing to a close. Haass sees that the U.S. is just one of the great global powers and must be willing to cooperate, collaborate with other powers in order to achieve results when the main issues of today are multilateral in nature.

In order for the world to follow America’s lead, Haass aptly understands that we must get our own house in order first. The rising national debt, the ongoing problems with investing in education, infrastructure, and health care prevent the United States from acting as an example to the rest of the world. A dysfunctional political process as well as a President who doesn’t believe in leading the international, post WWII order are preventing the United States from realizing its full potential as a global power.

For anyone who is new to international relations, A World In Disarray, is an excellent take on the history of the international system after World War II and how did we get to this point where the world seems more chaotic and unstable than ever. Mr. Haass understands the limits of American power and that in order to lead on the world stage; the U.S. must undertake reforms to benefit our own citizens at home. In order to solve complex, multilateral issues, the U.S. must value diplomacy and the relationships that we have with our allies. Where the U.S. used to be the only global superpower, after the fall of the Soviet Union, America is just one of the great powers now. In order to solve the multilateral issues of the 21st century, the United States cannot do it alone and we must be willing to use effective diplomacy and other forms of soft power to create peace and prosperity.

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The Need for Critical Thinking

Facts are a tricky thing, but the importance and recognition of them is vital in order to consider yourself a critical thinker. In this era of ‘alternative facts’ and opinionated media, it’s necessary to be able to read, analyze, and think about all of the information that you’ve been taking in and figure out for yourself if it’s truthful or nonsense. In this day and age, opinions are easy to find everywhere but what have become harder to find are the cold, hard facts. The famous expression, “take it with a grain of salt” can be applied to you if you want to be a critical thinker.

The first thing you have to do, as a critical thinker is to be able to sort out the facts from the falsehoods. You should be able to use more than one source of information and before you use those sources of information, you need to verify that they are both unbiased and trustworthy. The evidence that you gather for these facts have to be based off of real sources, who have compiled the information and verified its’ authenticity.

For example, if you’re a Chemistry student and you’re trying to do an experiment on making a chemical volcano, would you choose to get the information from an actual scientist who has their PhD and teaches Chemistry at a local university or would you trust the advice of a best friend in your Science class instead?

While it’s desirable to be a good friend and trust them because they would like to help you most likely, it’s likely their advice will pale in comparison to the Chemistry professor with the PhD who wrote a ‘how to’ article on chemical experiments in the latest edition of ‘Science Weekly.’ If you’re a critical thinker, you would choose option #2 100% of the time because you would like to create an experiment that’s going to be the best that it can be and using your friend’s advice won’t get you to that point.

Regardless of what professional or educational field that you decide to pursue, you’re going to need critical thinking. Being inherently skeptical at first of the information you’re receiving is important to do because you need to be able to discern if what you’re reading, watching, listening to, etc. is factual. In your daily life, you’re going to need to identify prejudice, bias, propaganda, etc. that you’re likely to encounter in your daily life. You have to do your best to discern fact from fiction even if it takes some time. You could decide to ingest every bit of information that you see in the news or at the office as being factual but it would benefit you instead to deep a bit digger by doing your research, verify the source(s), bounce it off other pieces of information to see if there’s a pattern, and then decide if it’s factual.

A true critical thinker is not lazy and does not take shortcuts. He or she goes the extra mile to gather the right information, prioritize it to give it credence in your decision-making, and then recognize, solve the problems in order to move on to the next goal. If you’re in a field where you’re working with data on the computer, you have to be able to interpret it, evaluate it, and then use it for your business or company’s needs. By being able to communicate effectively and clearly is also a necessity when it comes to being able to take those fresh facts you’ve verified and then pass it on to the next person so they know that they’re not being misled by you.

As a critical thinker, it’s also necessary to disregard generalizations made about complex topics, which require in-depth research and analysis. Instead, critical thinking also necessitates the ability to draw conclusions from the evidence and the facts that you have gathered. Then, you have to be able to pass those conclusions on to the right people so they know what’s true and what’s false.

Conclusions that you’ve made in the past can sometimes change in the present or in the future so it’s vital to not be stubborn about your beliefs. Critical thinking requires that you also be flexible in your beliefs especially if you’re able to take in new evidence, and logic. A man or a woman who does not change their views on anything despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary cannot consider himself or herself to be a true critical thinker. While it can be difficult to let go of your innate biases and prejudices, you still should be open-minded and be able to accept the truth and the facts even if they contradict with yours.

If your mother, someone who you loved and respected, happened to have told you one day that the sky was the color red instead of blue, would you accept her statement at face value or would you go outside of the house to check, verify her statement to see if it was true or false? If you are not a critical thinker and a great son, you would choose option #1 and believe that statement without actually checking to see if it’s true. If you are a critical thinker but still a good son, you would choose option #2 and tell your mother later that the sky is actually blue because you went outside to see its’ color for yourself. Even if your mom might be offended by your conclusion, she would still love and respect you for being a critical thinker as is necessary.

To put it bluntly, there are a lot of people out there in different industries that are not critical thinkers and they’re hoping the same about you. I don’t want to name names but you’re likely to encounter them in your neighborhood, your city, and your city. However, if you’re able to develop the right personal habits and characteristics, you’ll be able to set yourself apart as a real critical thinker rather than just a person who believes what he hears, reads, or listens to all of the time regardless of the source it’s coming from.

Those habits involve being a problem solver, an evidence gatherer, a decision maker, a rational thinker, being able to reason with others, and an inquisitive learner above all else. While critical thinking isn’t mandatory in life, you’ll still go a lot further and succeed more when you put those skills and habits to use when compared to those who don’t. If you’re an open-minded, intelligent, mature, and inquisitive person, you’ll turn out to be a good critical thinker and a positive example for others to follow.