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.

Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

“One of my favorite expressions in the English language: “Don’t rest on your laurels” means to not be complacent with what you have done and to keep moving forward.”

Complacency is the killer of any sustained success. What you have done in the past is in the past. Unfortunately, you cannot rest on your laurels for very long. One of my favorite expressions in the English language: “Don’t rest on your laurels” means to not be complacent with what you have done and to keep moving forward. Success is only temporary and while it can be lasting, if you don’t sustain what you’ve done to accomplish more, you may find yourself back at square one. You can be satisfied with your achievements and recognize them, but it is not wise to continue relying upon them when you need to be aware of what you have to do in the present and in the future.

With the current pandemic not going away anytime soon, it can be difficult to resign yourself to going with the flow, staying housebound, and waiting for things to become somewhat normal again. However, it should not be used as an excuse for you to let yourself go mentally or physically. Even if the first half of the year was a total wash for you and you put your own goals on hold, you still have a good chunk of the second half to make progress in whatever you set your mind to. Even though you may not be able to have fun as much as you like, this is a great time to reassess what is truly important to you, who truly matters to you, and how you want to be into the future. We all have extra time to think now and while that may feel like an undue burden, there is an opportunity in there to seek out what you are hoping to accomplish and will keep moving you forward during this unprecedented and difficult time.

Not resting on your laurels may sound difficult right now but it may be the perfect chance for you to move forward, to accomplish personal tasks that you’ve been putting off, and to pick up learning something new that you’ve been meaning to but never had the time before quarantine began or before you were resigned to staying at home more than you would have liked.

Each person is going to have their own set of goals and hopes but the main thing to keep in mind is that you have at least one thing that you want to accomplish that you didn’t have time for before the pandemic hit. Use your extra time even if it is just an hour or so each day to work towards a personal goal. With just one hour, you can accomplish a lot over the next five months. I would recommend setting a mental goal to hit like practicing meditation each day for 10 to 15 minutes or doing daily language practice for a new language that you would like to learn. You should also have one physical goal in mind like doing 50 pushups each day or 20 sprints or just being able to get in a form of exercise when you are not working or studying.

You cannot have just good physical health but poor mental health or vice versa. You need to work on both forms of health as they complement each other quite a bit. I truly believe that if you are making progress in both forms of health than you will be better able to confront the challenges of your day and your week. With this extra time at home, you can hit on both your mental and physical health in ways that you might not even be aware of.

If the gym is closed, go ahead and use your workout equipment at home. There are dozens of videos on how to do these kinds of exercises without needing very fancy equipment. You can also likely find stretch bands, jump rope, barbells, dumbbells, pull-up bars online to help you create that good 30-minute workout that can hit on different parts of the body. If you don’t have an outdoor space, look to your nearest park or public outdoor area to do sprints, go for a walk, go for a jog, or even do Yoga if you so desire to get a workout in.

Daily exercise is not only good for your body but it’s good for your mind as well. I think the pandemic has personally shown me as well the importance of staying fit and healthy and how it can get neglected when you are running around all the time, commuting to school or to work, and not making enough time for yourself to take care of your body. Now, with a little extra time, hopefully, we can collectively prioritize our physical health even if it’s just a simple home workout of 30 minutes.

Challenging yourself mentally on at least a weekly basis but preferably daily means learning something new to keep your mind sharp. If you are looking for work or haven’t been to school in a while, online learning opportunities are abundant from Coursera to LinkedIn Learning to Duolingo, which can challenge you to learn new skills to not only help you with your mental dexterity but can help you find a job depending on the type of industry you’re focusing on. Online learning is often less expensive than traditional means of education and since you are likely spending a lot more time in your apartment or your house, giving yourself thirty minutes to an hour per day of self-study can help you learn new skills while we are all living in this age of pandemic.

Keeping both your mental health and your physical health in mind during this trying time is very important. Not resting on your laurels even when life is influx and so many things are uncertain is not an excuse for your letting your mental and physical abilities go to waste. You are not only keeping yourself sharp to face ongoing challenges but you’re also getting out of your own head and letting your worries fall away for a little while. Wear a mask, socially distance, and wash your hands are all necessary in this current time but what’s also not being said is make sure you are taking care of both your mental and physical health too.

Whether it is a walk in the park, learning a new skill, doing home workouts, improving your cooking, trying to keep your routine even when homeward bound is very key to coming out of this pandemic better and more resilient. It’s something I have to work on myself but it’s key to keeping up a positive and forward-looking spirit. If you have more free time on your hands, that’s natural right now. Don’t become a sloth though and look to just vegetate out in front of the television. You have to do your best to stay active, stay positive, and keep moving forward.

It can be easy to rest on your laurels when much of our lives have been upended but you have to keep making progress towards your goals in ways that are possible right now. Hopefully, you have had time to think about which goals you want to achieve in the past few months and how you want to make the most of these remaining months of 2020. It’s been a hard year for everyone around the world, but you can still make it a fulfilling one for your own development by focusing on what you can control and how you make the most of these remaining months too.

Museum of Tomorrow (Museo do Amanhã)

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Museum of Tomorrow; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil