Book Recommendations – Volume XII

“However, while staying outdoors will become less and less pleasurable, this is definitely the time of the year to dive into your reading and to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reading good books.”

The end of the Summer is always a bittersweet one. With mixed feelings, August turns to September, fall season will soon be upon us and the daylight will become shorter while the cold weather is drawing near. However, while staying outdoors will become less and less pleasurable, this is definitely the time of the year to dive into your reading and to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reading good books. Colder weather, shorter days, and back to work / school will cause our minds to re-focus our attentions on the tasks at hand in our lives but we should not forget at night or on the weekends to kick back, relax, and enjoy a good book.

These four books that I’ve chosen are all non-fiction, but they tackle different subjects and are relevant to different academic or personal interests such as history, sociology, travel, or entrepreneurship. Each author brings something different to the table as well and the writing style is different along with the kind of narration you can expect. I can definitively say that each of these books is educational and you would not go wrong with reading any of the following books in the upcoming Fall season.

  1. The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat

New York Times op-ed writer and author Ross Douthat is not optimistic about the future. Given that the present involves polarization, stalemates, and a lack of technological innovation, what does humanity have to look forward to? That is the main argument of Douthat’s book ‘The Decadent Society’ on how we may have reached the limits of our own ‘progress’ and that modernity is less fulfilling than we thought it would be. Douthat’s view is that our current culture, innovations, and motivations like originality and that we have become too complacent as a society.

Douthat cites falling birth rates, more reliance on video games / virtual reality, lack of new businesses being started along with increasing government dysfunction leading us all to be ‘comfortably numb’ as the famous Pink Floyd song goes. Douthat’s diagnosis of our current cultural and political malaise is quite convincing from citing Star Wars remakes to the fact that the Trump and Clinton families have stayed relevant for decades in politics with a lack of a fresh face to get us out of our national ennui.

While our ‘modernity’ has left us more comfortable than satisfied, Douthat struggles to mention ways that we can get out of the malaise or the needed policy or cultural changes that should take place to push our horizons more and our boundaries as a society. This was my one main gripe with the book as in the 2nd half or towards the end, a little optimism or forward-thinking would have gone over well but perhaps that was done on purpose. Douthat is not optimistic that much will change in the future and that perhaps it is best to accept our current ‘decadence’ as being set in stone or perhaps to prepare for a fall from grace that would shake more of us out of our slumber. I hope either scenario is not the case. ‘Decadence’ in my perspective gets boring after a while and human beings are creative and innovative at our core so hopefully our current malaise is not permanent as Douthat argues but rather a temporary blip on human history.

2. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Perhaps the great ‘irony’ of our age will be that a President or a Senator won’t be the one to lead us out of our current decadence. Perhaps it will instead be a foreign-born entrepreneur who rose from nothing to build multiple successful ventures that could transform the way we transport ourselves and how we interact with the cosmos. Entrepreneur Elon Musk may be the one to help lead us out of decadence and he seems to be on the way to making a dent in the wall that prevents us from creating the future. As many people don’t realize, Mr. Musk did not have an easy childhood, moved around multiple times, and even was a mediocre student at times but what he has that all entrepreneurs need is grit, resolve, and determination. To create something out of nothing and build your vision to make it a reality is where Elon has succeeded where many others have failed.

Musk clearly did not do it on his own whether it was Zip2, PayPal, or SolarCity but he was able to create a team and even companies to carry out his lofty vision. His tolerance for risk as an entrepreneur both financially and personally is simply beyond most people’s comprehension. Elon Musk is an entrepreneur so dedicated to making his companies a success that he will pour millions of dollars from a previous venture into his next one to ensure its longevity. Elon is currently the third richest person in the world and this autobiography gives rare insight into what it took for Musk to get to this point today with more than two decades of setbacks, failures, and even a few lawsuits here and there to overcome.

Ashlee Vance does an excellent job highlighting who Musk is as a person, what drives him, how his childhood and family affected him, who were the people around him, how could Tesla and SpaceX change life in the future and how big of an impact could they really have. Vance is illustrative in showing the whole of Elon Musk, both the good and bad, of the visionary entrepreneur. While he disdains any notion of socialism in government policy, he has received millions in government subsidies to help his businesses; His commitment to succeed can sometimes cause him to fall out with others who feel they were not treated well or were not given the recognition that they thought they deserved. A good biography shows both the triumphs and the warts of a man and this one is no different. Overall, this biography is an excellent look into the man behind both Tesla and SpaceX who continues on his quest to change the world by molding its future.

3. The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

This book is a love letter to International Relations in 2020 (pre-COVID) by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass. For those new to this field, it is a very enlightening and comprehensive book to ground someone especially in high school or their 1st year in college to know about the basics of the world in terms of foreign affairs and what are some of the main challenges of the 21st century for nation-states. While primarily a guide to the world for those new to international relations, I found that it is a good refresher for more advanced or experienced students of international affairs.

I enjoyed the historical overview, the breakdown of the regions in a succinct manner, and the number of economic, security, and development challenges that the world is grappling with at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Richard Haass would definitely be an excellent professor to have in your Introduction to International Relations / International Relations Theories and this book would be a good starter text to have.

Clocking in at around 400 pages total, no major detail is spared, and no region of the world is left uncovered. If you are not familiar with an issue in IR or a region where you don’t know the culture or the language, Haass’s book is a good way to familiarize yourself and to stay up to date with what is going on regionally or thematically. For those of you in high school interested in the world and geopolitics, this book is a good place to start. For those of you starting college and planning to major in international relations, it is likely you will be reading this book not before too long.

4. Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

Home is whatever place you can find yourself comfortable in over a long enough period of time. I remember reading this piece of wisdom in Matthew Kepnes’s book and finding it to be quite the piece of truth. As a fellow traveler and shorter-term ‘nomad’ myself, Matthew’s travel memoir appealed to me because of its raw honesty and vulnerability. Life at home is comfortable but it can get dull and repetitive. Life on the road is new and exhilarating but can also lead to a sense of fatigue moving from place to place without settling down roots or losing friends and relationships as you feel the call to move somewhere else.

In my experience, Travel memoirs can be rather hit or miss but this one by Mr. Kepnes is on the mark in terms of the ups and downs of long-term travel and also about staying in a country for a year or more. I was personally away from home in my 20s for over three years and I can only imagine how ten years on the road would fundamentally change who I am, what I value, and how I want to live my life.

I really admire Matthew’s deep understanding on the joys of travel and how lucky we are to be on the road when we can. Travel is a privilege that especially now, we tend to have taken for granted. Once you get started on the path outside your town or country, it can be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. That nomadic yearning to live life on your own terms, on your own pace is a flickering light that can burnish again with renewed intensity often times when we least expect it. This memoir highlights how rewarding travel can be, how much it can develop your personality and your worldview, and why it is so important to listen to your gut at times to know what you want in life.

Some of us travelers are meant to have one foot out of the door at all times and when we stay in one place too long, we tend to get stir crazy. I think what Matthew learned is how important it is to find that balance of being a nomad at heart but finding roots somewhere while keeping the freedom he gained over many years of hard work of being an independent writer, a recognized travel expert, and an overall creator with an ability to work remotely, which may becoming more and more common into the future.

You may think starting the journey is the hardest step to take when you’re going out on the road, but I find it’s true instead how coming home is often the hardest thing you’ll do when the journey comes to an inevitable end at some point. The good thing that Matthew notes in his memoir is that the nomad or the traveler is always within us even after the journey ends and that eternal flame can be rekindled making it easier and easier to get out on the road in the future to have more journeys without feeling that fear of the first step as happens on the first journey out of our comfort zone.

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.