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It was the second year of COVID-19, it was the year of intensified conflicts in Afghanistan, it was the year of the Ezza/Effium crisis among communities in Ohaukwu LGA of Ebonyi state in South Eastern Nigeria which led to the death and displacement of many families including mine.
Nevertheless, 2021 had some good sides to it as well. I will also remember it as the year I finished my Masters in AI in the National University of Singapore, the year I spent with very nice and close friends, and the year I read pretty interesting books and broadened my world view and areas of interest. I picked more interest in books a couple of years ago and have challenged myself at the beginning of each year to read a certain number of books before the end of the year. I am usually not big on reviewing anything, but I found myself reviewing a good number of the interesting books I read this year and decided a few days ago to share some of them. This post contains a collection of selected short reviews of books I found interesting throughout the year. Perhaps in the future, I may have more comprehensive reviews that could be made into separate posts. Among my favorite authors for this year are the renowned Russian 19th century author, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Nigerian literary legend, Chinua Achebe.
Bear in mind that these reviews strictly represent my personal opinions about the content of these books and may not be objective facts. However, I will be glad to discuss them in the comment section. These reviews are lifted directly from my Goodreads reviews with little to no editing. You can browse other reviews there which I have not included here.
Let’s dive in!
Author: George Orwell
Review published: April 19, 2021
What is the nature of reality? Is it wholly confined within the mind of the perceiver or it exists outside on its own, perhaps in an entirely different dimension? Can reality be changed by changing the mind’s vector of thought? Does reality exist without humanity?
How does language affect the thought process? Can you think of something you can’t put into words?
This book poses several questions about existentialism, human psychology and philosophy in a rather interesting way that you can’t help but doublethink! It opens a whole new discourse into the nature of reality. While I liked the political essence of the book, I far more valued the philosophical and psychological exploration of human consciousness.
Read at the expense of your own sanity, but read no matter what!
Title: Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: Viktor E. Frankl
Review published: November 04, 2021
According to Frankl, the true self is exposed in the face of suffering. And we are not defined by our condition but our decision, so even in the darest of times, your decisions are still your personal responsibility and that is one of the few freedoms that cannot be taken away. He seems to disagree with Freud on this point who believes that given some strict conditions, we lose our individuality and regress to a common behavioural pattern. Could this mean we get closer to our original earlier forms where we were governed by instincts? Though Frankl does agree that there is some regression to be noticed in such extreme circumstances, we still have the burden of decision.
Face your fears - paradoxical intention plays a key role in logotherapy as outlined in the several examples in the book. The anticipation loses its power as fear wears out and that in turn disarms the situation. How do we find meaning? By creating something, by meeting someone or by extra ordinary and extreme situations such as suffering. Especially interesting is the third method where you come to a realization after you come to terms with your suffering. Similar to the Buddhist ideas of release. For me, the central point of the book is that the will to live or even making peace with death lies in finding the meaning to one’s life.
There are so many interesting discussions and questions raised in the book bordering on existentialism, psychology of suffering and psychotherapy.
Title: Notes from Underground
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Review published: November 19, 2021
My second book of Dostoevsky after The Brothers Karamazov. As always, he mixes some humor with deep existential thoughts. I must say, I love his style of writing and had a lot of fun reading this. The underground man has decided to lay his soul bare, speaking of the innermost feelings that we sometimes don’t even want to admit to ourselves. In the first part, he explores humans as helpless against the will of nature as Schopenhauer and the nihilists will put it. He sees no meaning in life in the face of this stone wall. If you are already fated to do something, then what is the fun in that? The underground man sees humanity as that which pushes against this fate and orderliness. Within our humanity lies an innate urge to bring chaos that if infact you should beforehand calculate this chaos, we may strive towards less chaos just to render such calculations incorrect. We want to prove that we have control over our dealings.
In the second part, we peek into the past of the underground man. I was especially touched by the story of the dinner with the colleagues he had studied with. I couldn’t help but identify with some of those feelings myself. An overblown sense of self-importance, hatred and envy for the other colleagues you consider are inferior but are generally accepted as your betters by the society. I confess gentlemen, that I am not proud of these feelings, but there they were.
Overall probably the first book I will recommend to anyone trying to read Dostoevsky for the first time. It is short and introduces his writing style in a very enjoyable way.
Title: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra
Author: Chinua Achebe
Review published: November 22, 2021
Piece at a time the words came
But string them together I could not
For while each word had a sting
I never felt the venom of the whole.
The lines above, a perhaps futile attempt at poetry, summarize how I feel after reading this book. I am of Igbo descent and grew up in the Eastern lands of Nigeria. In my generation, much information available about the civil war were mostly echoes and half-jokes you’d hear here and there from your parents and older relatives while you had a hearty dinner. There was no detailed teaching of what transpired in schools, atleast the ones I went to. So I never truly grasped the extent to which it influenced the Nigerian landscape, especially the East. This book felt like a journey. I was suddenly plunged into the Eastern hinterlands alongside Achebe during the war, drinking in the details and grasping the emotions, the fear, the feeling of uncertainty of existence that my people would have felt and it suddenly becomes more real than the individual unconnected stories of my parents and relatives could convey. What makes it worse is that much of the Nigerian populace are largely unaware just like I was, of the details of this war that claimed millions of lives and impoverished tens of millions. I am surprised that the Igbo people and other ethnicities of the East are almost closing the gaps left by that ordeal. But the Nigerian situation has not improved even after this, insecurity has made the country a nightmare and the relationship between the Igbos and the rest of Nigeria, especially the North has not improved either but instead deteriorating by the day. Again, revolutionaries are cropping up and only time can tell what awaits us…
Title: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Author: Ishmael Beah
Review published: December 1, 2021
I have heard a lot about war, but it takes experiencing it to truly understand it. To understand that you may or may not live in the next second. To stare death in the eye so often that it becomes part of your daily routine. To break mentally to the extent of losing your sanity. One particular point in the book that I felt deeply was when they were driven out of some village and one of his friends spoke that even though they see him as whole, he is slowly dying inside and one day only a shell of him will remain with them, devoid of his being. Trying to imagine the level of suffering that would drive a teenager of 12-14 years to say that was just very difficult if not impossible. Beah really told his story in such way that the reader could imagine, maybe not understand, but atleast imagine what it was like roaming those forests for months without human contact, running from one village to another barefoot under the hot sun and seeing the building housing your family members engulfed in flames while the perpetrators laughed. If it felt this horrible just reading the experience of another, I cannot begin to imagine what it was like experiencing it…
Title: Liberalism: The Classical Tradition
Author: Ludwig von Mises
Review published: December 1, 2021
First of all, If this book was written today, it would be called Capitalism and not Liberalism. I think this is an important bit of information for those who expected to read about the modern liberal movement as I did. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the topic treated in the book. It really dives deep to explain the economic consequences of capitalism and why it is beneficial to all and not just entrepreneurs. I found most of the arguments really sound and refreshing, however, there were fundamentalist undertones here and there. “Liberalism is the only way…” was thrown around quite often. Furthermore, Mises spoke a lot against regulated capitalism or interventionism in the book and forbade the state from interfering in economic matters in the form of tariffs, embargoes etc, in order to ensure a free market where prices are dictated by market forces. But then he went on to encourage European nations and the US to impose embargoes on Russia simply because they had just recently become a communist state. Why not allow the market to decide as he earlier advised? If there is demand in Russia for such goods, why not meet it with a supply? This just goes to show how much he detested Communism and socialism that he was ready to let go of some of his own liberal principles. Throughout the book, he blames any issues that arose in otherwise liberal societies on the fact that they didn’t completely implement liberal principles. He also completely frowns on any idea of a middle ground between liberalism and socialism in the form of regulatory capitalism. It’s either full liberalism or nothing, go hard or go home! From his ideas, for liberalism to succeed, globalization is key to encourage an unhindered free flow of goods and the free market. And that all nations involved in such trade should also embrace liberal principles for it to succeed. While globalization is okay on its own, his idea encourages enforcing liberal principles on other nations as that is the only way you can reap the full benefits of liberalism in your own nation. Reminds one of activities carried out by the West in other parts of the world in the 20th century which brought about wars and the death of many. What’s more, he fails to see how human factors can make capitalism cause trouble such as large corporations involved in weapons development inciting wars between communities or even states to benefit from the sales of weapons to these groups. While socialists think that humans have the goodwill to live in an egalitarian utopia, Mises and liberals think that the market and capitalist system is efficient enough that human factors won’t be an issue. Both are naive assumptions in my opinion.
And that is it!
I hope you had some good experiences in 2021 as well.
Happy New Year 2022!