A Reflection on the 2010s: Literature

**DISCLAIMER**
I know that some of these books were not written or published in this decade. I have written about them because I discovered them in this decade, and thus it seemed appropriate to me.

-You are Here by Thích Nhất Hạnh-
Something that arose serendipitously as I was required to pick out a Christmas gift to me, from another while in Chapters. It focusses on the simplicity of suffering and human well-being and how to come to terms with/overcome it. It changed my life and is the first book that I will ever recommend to a person.

Favourite quotes:
“Are my perceptions accurate?”
“My actions are my only true possessions.”
Fun fact – the lyrics for my song Subsistence were listed from this text.

-The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho-
I read as a recommendation from my mum during a time when I was fixated on the fundamental explainability/empirical understandability of everything. It really shifted my mindset through a new subset of understanding in which there are explainable phenomenon, but also currently unknown (and likely unknowable) elements to nature and our lives in general. It shook my need for hard evidence on absolutely everything, and I allowed myself to combine the (often) rigid ideals with ideas like listening to instincts and hunches more, showing less resistance to the flow of life and it’s shaping events, and enjoying the bounty of experience and joy available at all times.

Favourite quote:
“Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.” (it sounds more vengeful than it is demonstrated in the book)

-Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux-
After Bryson, my second experience with travel writing. This really began my love for it and enforced with me that the idea of “travelling” didn’t have to be some kitchy Instagram popularity contest. As with the soul surfer there are plenty of people in the world who wander about in order to gain insight on the grander sense of truth and truly give back in many ways, not just to the version of the society from which they have most gained. Theroux travels by land from Cairo to Cape Town, experiencing (not all for the first time) the vast differentiation in culture, landscape, politics, etc. of (largely) Eastern Africa. He let’s the experience befall him with such an absorbent nonchalance, and projects with an outspoken, experienced wisdom how self-serving our ideas of aid are to other parts of the world. An astute account of a turbulent and liberating journey through “the unpredictable continent.”

Favourite quotes:
“Be sure you give the poor the aid they most need,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
“Travel has changed him. You go away for a long time and return a different person — you never come all the way back.”

-To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins-
Years ago while searching for a film cue to score in a class at university, I came across a Staff Pick on Vimeo. Jedidiah had decided to drop his job he loved in Oregon at the age of thirty and cycle to the southern tip of Argentina. His message of haste toward routine inspired me such that I drastically changed my way of thinking toward how I was interacting with existence and time. Several years later, he posted about having written a book which I was convinced I needed to read, having been so moved by his three minute video. As with any biographical recounting (including the one you’re currently reading about myself) it is steeped in the person’s lifelong journey, their struggles, their epiphanies, and their downfalls. Jed (Jay-ud) gives a revealing look into his life and struggles as a gay man coming from a conservative religious upbringing. The shockwaves of epiphany are felt through the retrospective look into his life-altering journey through the Americas and his mind.

Favourite quotes:
“By thirty, I had learned a valuable lesson: You are not an idiot. It’s okay if you don’t know everything. Don’t pretend. Ask all the questions you want. It’s fine if you’re not prepared for the zombie apocalypse at all times.”
“I read that when Tolstoy was young he wrote in his journal, “I am twenty-four years old and I have still done nothing…I am sure it’s not for nothing that I have been struggling with all my doubts and passions for the past eight years. But what am I destined for? Only time will tell.” I was thirty years old reading this, sitting by a river in Mexico, wondering what I had done with my life. I knew it wasn’t for nothing that I’d been struggling with all my doubts and passions for the past twenty years. I had dipped so deeply and completely into my faith, into my life of God, or who I made God to be, and what the people around me said He must think about everything. I knew it was not for nothing, but what, I didn’t know. I just knew it was somewhere in me, and I needed travel to shake it out. I needed to see different things to remind me what I was, in contrast to what I already knew. To see clearly what I had become.
“I have found more comfort and have felt a greater faith in something bigger than me, I have felt a bigger hug from the universe by rejecting the obsession to call it something. To name it.”
“And quitting that limited idea, that truth is so small, has given me deeper curiosity in the universe, my world, and the people around me. I love them more. I love everything more. Because I don’t see anyone else as right or wrong, we all just are.”
“Life can feel effortless, like you’re carried along by an unseen force. Or it can feel like you’re in a losing fistfight with a brick wall. It all depends on which way you’re headed.”

Fun fact – The content in the video inspired my song The Thousand Year Journey just months before reading the book.

-Usefulness of the Useless by Nuccio Ordine-
An essay by Ordine primarily regarding the pitfalls of Utilitarianism (especially on the spiritual (my term for his ideas), artistic, and existential experience). So much is done to defend the essence of art in every aspect of life as well as the depth of experience which is so often glossed-over in modern society. As an artist, I identified strongly with much of the expressed sentiments that I have long felt but had trouble verbalizing. A great read for anyone (artist or otherwise) who has felt the crushing weight of Utilitarianism on your creativity in any realm.

Favourite quotes:
“In a utilitarian society, people end up loving “easy beauties” that do not require effort, or take up too much time (“They love books that are easy to obtain, which can be speedily read, and which require no scholarly investigation to be understood.”)…Useless and disinterested knowledge can “Serve marvellously to counteract our particular flaws” because it “supports us from the part toward which we lean.””
“To abandon the notion of possession, and to live with the risk of loss, means accepting the fragility and precariousness of love. It means giving up the illusion of guaranteed, indissoluble bonds of love, and realizing that human relationships, with all the limitations and imperfections that characterize them, cannot be separated from the opacity and the shadowy areas of uncertainty.”
“Religions too, like philosophy, must become a life choice; it must transform itself into a way of life. So no religions and no philosophy can ever claim to possess an absolute truth that holds for all  of humankind. Because believing that you possess the one and only truth means feeling duty bound to impose it, even by force, for the good of humanity. Dogmatism produces intolerance in every field of knowledge: in ethics, religion, politics, philosophy, and science, considering your own truth to be the only possible one means rejecting any search for truth.”
“In point of fact, those who are sure they possess the truth no longer need to seek it, no longer feel the need for dialogue, to listen to the other, or to tackle diversity in an authentic manner. Only those who love the truth can seek it constantly. This is why doubt is not the enemy of truth, but a constant spur to go in search of it. Only when you really believe in truth, do you know that the only way to ensure that it will endure is to call it repeatedly into question. And without the negation of an absolute truth there can be no room for tolerance.”
“Only the consciousness that we are destined to live in uncertainty, only the humility required to understand that we are fallible, only the awareness that we are exposed to the risk of error can allow us to conceive of a genuine encounter with others, with those who think differently from us. For these reasons, the plurality of opinions, languages, religions, cultures, and peoples must be seen as an immense resource for humanity and not as a dangerous obstacle.”
“This is why those who deny absolute truth cannot be considered nihilists: standing midway between the dogmatics (who think they possess absolute truth) and the nihilists (who deny the existence of truth), we find those who love the truth so much that they are constantly in search of it. So—accepting the fallibility of knowledge, tackling doubt, living with error—does not mean embracing irrationalism or absolute authority. On the contrary, it means, in the name of pluralism, exercising our right to criticize and feeling the need for dialogue even with those who fight for values different than ours.”

-Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari-
Yuval Noah Harari dives deep into this comprehensive glance at history and its consequences. He unpacks many of the historical choices that have led us to this point and how the mechanisms that made those decisions shape the decisions we make today. Harari shifts one’s view from the common perspective, to one that is jarringly objective. Perhaps one of the most important reads for many in the decade. 

Favourite quotes:
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”
“We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.

  1. Imagined order is embedded in the material world – layout of modern houses is conducive to ideas of individualism with separate rooms for each individual
  2. The imagined order shapes our desires – an ape would not want to travel to another ape’s territory for leisure. Most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries (follow your heart)
  3. The imagined order is inter-subjective – something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. “

“There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”
“Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming a master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers.”
“Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds. (On the contradicting desire for personal liberty and equality/chivalry and Christianity)”

-Scent of Time by Byung-Chul Han-
A late find in the decade. I happened upon it in the philosophy section of a bookstore and was intrigued. A hard book to summarize, as it requires quite a bit of knowledge of existing literature, comparable to Slavoj Zizek’s writings (as well as James Joyce, I am told – I feel ill-prepared to read Joyce just yet, and thus haven’t). In a general sense, it confronts the individual’s experience with time and the ways in which is changes through certain habits, mindsets, activities, and outlooks. I was especially fond of the ideas regarding activity and how when incessantly employed actually impoverishes the experience of time. His emphasis on stopping, silence, stillness, and willingness to experience rather than create experience boded well with me. Please don’t take this futile summary as the key ideas of the book, and create your own relationship with this small but nuanced take on time.

Favourite quotes:
“Just being active impoverishes your experience. It continues ever the same. Whoever is not capable of stopping and pausing has no access to what is altogether different. Experience transforms. It interrupts the repetition of the ever same. You do not become more susceptible to the making of experiences by becoming more active. Rather, what is needed is a particular kind of passivity. You need to let yourself be concerned with that which evades the activity of the acting subject: ‘To undergo an experience with something – be it a thing, a person, or a god – means that this something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us.'”
“Contemplative lingering gives time. It widens that being that is more than being-active. When life regains its capacity for contemplation, it gains in time and space, in duration and vastness.”

-The Outsider by Alberta Camus-
I know this book wasn’t written in this decade (nor the prior few, for that matter), but it was a discovery of this decade for me. Camus approaches the case with such a deep social insight. It really serves to remind me that the practices of such professions as psychology and psychoanalysis emerge from the human experience and tradition, rather than solely practice of the scientific method. Such sympathy can be granted to Meursault by the reader (much like with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) even given the horrors of their actions and mind(s). To me, it is really a look into the mind of someone who is mentally unstable, and is not a justification of their actions, but a means of trying to understand their struggles (some that I imagine everybody faces, to be honest). It is a blurring of the strict lines of justice that are often imposed or cited by various laws and rule around the world and a powerful look into the social pressures for conformity that govern the modern world. I think it is an important read, now especially, with our updated knowledge on psychology and insights into mental illness.

Favourite quote:
I have lent the book to somebody else, and thus have to explain/paraphrase **CONTAINS SPOILER)**
-When Meursault goes to prison his concept of time begins to change and he begins studying the details of his small cell. He makes a practice of this as a sort of meditation between thinking about the outside world and going out into it in brief spats. He reflects on how much this practice can provide in the way of pleasure and contentment, saying that one or two hours outside can provide enough experience to reflect on for an entire week or more.

-Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris-
Kate Harris is equal parts bravery and brains. I can’t even begin to comprehend her mind. She is a true inspiration to me, as she surely is to many and will be to you. Upon reading the first pages of her sneaky entrance into Tibet, I was hooked. She handles such topics as travel, exploration, social interaction, and science with great nuance and condor. Her eloquence and aptitude in writing and recounting her experience and events of the past is so pleasing and intriguing. Along with shedding new light on the idea of travellers and explorers, she navigates the ideas of borders and their societal relevance, consequence, futility, and implications throughout. A truly inspiring person and journey that I would highly recommend to anyone.

Favourite quote:
“Travel reveals less about the truth of a place and hints more at how complicated the world is, how reeling and inscrutable. Perhaps that’s the best thing going for bicycle travel in particular: the way it’s an antidote to straight lines, haste.”

Fun fact – this book was part of the inspiration for a friend of mine to plan a cycling trip through continental Europe onto the Silk Road and through to Southern Asia, Australia, and eventually New Zealand. I will be joining him for a segment of the trip this coming year.

Honourable Mentions:

  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Surfing with Sartre – Aaron James
  • Why We Sleep – Matt Walker
  • Outliers/Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
  • Notes From a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • A Philosophy of Walking – Frederic Gros
  • Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner

A small request, should you choose to purchase any of these books upon reading about them… please try to get them from a local, independent bookstore, and not from Amazon.

Thanks for reading!

Max

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