/ fiction

Reading update February 2015

1. Haruki Murakami - Kafka on the Shore

So far I've only read short stories and novella's by Murakami, this was the first full length novel. It was a little slow reading to start off, while it intrigued me, it didn't fully capture me until I got in about one third the way. I'm glad I stayed though!

The story follows two main arcs in alternating chapters, with an interesting cast of characters. As with all of Murakami's stories (that I've read so far), it takes place in a parallel world, very similar to our own, but not quite. It features a group of soldiers who wandered off into the woods during the second World War and have somehow survived, a protagonist going by the name of Kafka, who may or may not have killed his father, an old man who talks with cats and is on the run for the police, because he has a mission to complete, though he doesn't know himself what that is, an entity of unknown origin that takes the form of Colonel Sanders and a woman with a mysterious past.

Throughout the book, the storylines continue to cross and converge, and we begin to understand how a string of mysterious events fit together. This is certainly a book to read a second time, now that I know how most of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. There remains mysteries that I still don't fully understand, a sign of an excellent story.

2. Revel, Ricard - The Monk and the Philosopher

A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life

This has been one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time. It's been set up as a discussion between Jean Francois-Revel, a preeminent French philosopher and his son Mattieu Ricard, who gave up a promising career in molecular genetics to become a monk, and study for decades with the masters of Tibettan Buddhism.

The book is divided into a number of topics covering the art of life, the fabric of consciousness, metaphysics, history, the role of science, morality and more. In each topic, Ricard explains the Buddhist viewpoint on the topic very clearly and concisely, while Revel connects it with the Western philosophical tradition.

I've always been interested in Buddhism, from a philosophical standpoint and the book doesn't disappoint in addressing this. It becomes clear that Buddhism isn't a religion, but a philosophy in the classical sense. For those not familiar with the history of philosophy, it used to encompass not just the narrow field it does today, but also the natural sciences and the metaphysical side of religion (why and how do we exist).

While Buddhism has picked up many characteristics of a religion through the centuries, in essence it is a philosophy of life, of how the universe works and of how we should organize our life and society. The religious veneer is created as a way to incorporate the ideas into the life of ordinary people. There are no "gods", but abstract ideals that are used to focus one's attention on a certain topic. No "saints", but examples after which you can model your life.

Ricard debunks many of the misconceptions about Buddhism that have arisen in the West due to mistranslations of Buddhist texts and traditions by early writers, who were not familiar with the actual practice of Buddhism. As an example, Buddhism is often seen as nihilistic and fatalistic, "all the world is suffering, and it's every man for himself to try to escape", while it's anything but that. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a fact of life, and gives practical ways to deal with it. But more than that, it gives humans the task to eradicate all suffering in the world and do whatever is in their power to help others overcome it.

Revel clearly has a great grasp of the Western philosophical tradition, and is able to connect it with every aspect of Buddhism, showing that it isn't alien at all to us. This is one explanation why interest in Buddhism is rising while religiousity is declining. People are searching for alternative ways to give meaning and direction to their life, and, while Western philosophy has abandoned the practical side for narrow theoretical niches, they find it in Eastern philosophy.

3. John Gray - The Immortalization Commission

Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

Though written by a philosopher, this book is actually a history lesson, focusing on two separate but interconnected stories. The first half of the book investigates the topic of life-after-death, in particular the efforts in Victorian England, attempting to prove eternal life in the spiritual sense.

It follows a cast of eminent Victorians, such as Myers, Sidgwick and Balfour and explains their motivations and theories of consciousness. The rise in popularity of Darwinism was the cause of a lot of confusion. People found it difficult to give meaning to their life in a completely Darwinian world. One of the ways, possibly influenced by Eastern ideas of reincarnation, was the idea of consciousness somehow surviving death.

That is not to say these Victorians were superstitious, they tried to address the problem from a sceptical, scientific viewpoint. One of the attempts was so called automatic writing, in which the medium goes in to a trance-like state and write "unconsciousless". It was thought a deceased person could take control over the writing, and communicate. The experiment they set up was to have several mediums in different places in space and time attempt to "channel" one individual. If the collated works showed a consistent message, it was believed, that would prove a single person dictating the message.

The second half of the book deals with the Victorian counterparts in post-revolution Russia, and focusses on the idea of eternal life in the physical sense. In particular, the Immortalization Commision that the book lends its title from. This commision was formed to preserve, and eventually resurrect, the remains of Lenin.

It is interesting to see various people meander between these two settings, travelling back-and-forth and exchanging ideas. In particular, the story of H.G. Wells and his Lover-Shadow, who might at times have spied for various agencies, was fascinating. This story alone would have made the book worth to read, but the book offers so much more!

4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez - No One Writes to the Colonel

This novella is about the life of a retired colonel some years after the Columbian Thousand Days' War, who has been waiting patiently to receive his pension. While waiting for his letter of acceptance, his family has become impoverished and his wife has had to resort to selling whatever possessions they had, to put a meager meal on the table.

When we join the story, the couple is old and sick, they've lost their son, and the only things left to sell are an old clock and their son's fighting rooster. The colonel, however, is a man of pride. Every time the mailman is arriving in their little village, he'd dress up, wander to the townhall, and wait to see if his pension has finally arrived.

Because of his pride, he refuses to sell, or eat, his son's rooster. Instead, he takes food from their own mouths to feed the rooster, and train it to take part in the rooster fights, hoping for a victory and some prize money.

The story is an interesting exploration of small-town life in rural Columbia, rampant corruption and the hardships of poverty. It shows how, despite so much tragedy, people can keep their dignity, honesty and pride. A short, but worthy read from one of the literary masters of the 20th century.

5. J. M. Coetzee - The Masters of Petersburg

Another Nobel Literary Laureate, another lost son, another tragic story. The protagonist of the story has returned to St. Petersburg after the apparent suicide of his beloved stepson Pavel. He has left his too-young wife in Dresden, and has returned to Russia to try to understand how this could have happened.

When he goes to the police office, he learns that he might not have known his stepson as well as he thought. Among the "various papers and letters" the police have taken from Pavel's room are documents that indicate he may have been a member of a Nihilist terrorist organization called the Nechaevists.

The man immediately rejects the idea, but has a hard time convincing the police his stepson isn't involved. As the story progresses, we see the protagonist developing a fondness for the boy's landlady, after he moves into the hired room that was once his stepson's. We learn that the suicide may not have been a suicide at all and meet de nihilist leader Sergey Nechayev himself.

Based on true events.

6. Julian Assange - When Google Met Wikileaks

After those somewhat heavy, but rewarding, books, I wanted to read something lighter. My eye fell on When Google Met Wikileaks, which had been in my library for a while. The book was published in response to Eric Schmidt's The New Digital Age, which in part was based on an interview between Schmidt et al. and Assange.

Assange felt that his views and the content of the interview were misrepresented in the book, and decided, after a scathing review in the New York Times, to publish the raw transscipts of the interview with annotations in the form of a book.

I have not always been a fan of Assange, feeling that he was seeking the media and his personal glory too much. The interview, however, shows a different side of him. We learn of his ideas about the role of journalism, (self-) censorship and technology. It is clear he has thought about these topics long and hard, and he knows what he's talking about.

He envisions a new kind of journalism, based in science, where every line of text without citations and footnotes is suspicious. Where journalists need to show the data they base their stories on and are held accountable for them. This is far removed from the current practice of self-censoring news out of fear to lose advertisers or access to sources.

In the lines of questions from Schmidt et al., however, we can discern an underlying agenda. It is, at times, startling to see how the head of a tech giant appears to be ignorant of important new technologies, though he appears to catch on quickly when they are explained. To be fair, he may have been feigning ignorance to draw Assange out.

While there are no spectacular revelations, this book does give an interesting peek behind the scenes, and into the minds of some of the people trying to shape the future of the internet.