Did you know that you can navigate the posts by swiping left and right?

2022 Book Reviews

31 Dec 2022 . category: books . Comments
#books #review #book-review #year-end #life

Last year I published an article reviewing some of the books I had read and found interesting during the year. End-of-year recaps have become increasingly popular in various aspects including business and personal life. Hence, I have decided to make the book reviews an annual tradition.

This year like the recent ones before it, has been a roller coaster. In the first quarter of the year, yet another crisis rose to displace COVID-19 from the centre stage of global concern and attention. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has heavily affected many sectors of the global economy causing a huge downturn just as the economy was beginning to recover from the effects of the pandemic. And if you are wondering about the Ezza/Effium crisis which I mentioned in last year’s review, the situation has not improved. And to cap off the year, just yesterday, a dear friend informed me of his sister’s untimely death; a piece of devastating news for the family during this holiday season.

Despite the challenging times, there are some things to be thankful for, from my career to my personal life. One of these is finally getting to visit and celebrate Christmas with my family after a rather long period.

But enough of the reminiscence! Let’s dive into the books!
Again, opinions are strictly mine and these reviews and others can be found on my Goodreads page.

Title: The Communist Manifesto
Author: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

From antiquity, there has always been a class conflict between various social classes of society. The fall of the Roman empire gave way to the middle ages which brought with it feudal systems to European states. This seemed like a step backwards from the mode of social organisations of the ancient Greek and Roman societies, but after a millennium, the rise of industry finally gave rise to a social class that is not necessarily hereditary - the bourgeoisie!

However, it was not the only social class ushered in by the industrial era. The previous members of the lower class - serfs, journeymen, etc, now formed the workforce that powered the industries - the proletariat. With Adam Smith’s division of labour came a huge output in the industrial process, but this optimized mode of labour also further enslaved the proletariat.

Liberal reforms such as the ones that followed the French revolution ensured that these people were no longer slaves or serfs to their masters but slaves they were still, only this time to labour. The value of each individual in the proletariat was measured by his labour output. This allowed little value to be attached to other human endeavours. The sole purpose of life for the working class became to earn wages to live. There were economic improvements as a result of modern industry but the human soul became a slave.

You can imagine that this gave rise to revolutionaries pushing for more equal and socialist states. This movement, having begun in France, was strengthened in Germany by Hegel’s philosophy of rights. Young Hegelians came to be at the forefront of the socialist movement in Germany, among them Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. The demands of the communist manifesto are rather radical and probably not achievable in human society without again concentrating power in the hands of the few - the administration of the state. This can be seen as most communist states in practice end up as quasi-dictatorships.

The philosophy of communism is sound, but unfortunately not practical for humans. In general, the manifesto was a necessity produced by the conditions of its time and has taken a considerable part in revolutions that changed the political landscape of the entire world, hence is worth a read.

Title: The State and Revolution
Author: Vladimir Lenin

First of all, I see this work as Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism as opposed to interpretations of Kautsky, Plekhanov and the other social democrats and “opportunists”. So it may be helpful to have read some works of Marx and Engels before delving into this work, though not necessarily as his interpretation albeit quite radical, makes marxism easier to digest (at least for me).

To Lenin and probably most other Marxists, Marx and Engels are akin to Zeus and Hermes. Their theories are absolute and almost divine, the only problem being in the different interpretations people give to them.

The state is the vehicle of class conflict. It necessarily arises to enforce class oppression and so has to be destroyed. The anarchists riding on the works of Proudhon say “let’s destroy this evil!” and the Marxist socialists say “let’s cease it and turn it into a proletarian revolutionary vehicle and it will then naturally wither away!”. So they both want the same end goal but the execution path is different. I can’t help but wonder how we can end class oppression by creating a proletarian dictatorship from a bourgeois state. Isn’t that still class oppression? Only this time, the minority becomes the oppressed and not the majority. From the Marxist theories though, one could deduce that the bourgeoisie as a class will simply cease to exist and everyone becomes a member of the proletariat, including the peasants. But how exactly will the state wither away from the proletariat dictatorship? History has shown us that this part is unlikely to happen.

The social democrats and “opportunists” want the soft way out, they want to simply re-engineer the state from a bourgeois democracy to a proletarian democracy but Lenin and the Bolsheviks say to hell with democracy altogether! Democracy is a product of the state and hence as the state withers away, so will democracy. According to Lenin, the future that social democrats are preaching is but an initial step in the communist manifesto. And so from the ashes of Kautsky’s Second International arose Lenin’s Communist International.

In general, Marxism was a product of its time and as Marx and Lenin put it - socialism stems from capitalism, so we had to have capitalism to reach socialism. The Germans theorised it, the French offered a playground for experimentation and the Russians adopted it.

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell

Four legs good, two legs bad…four legs good, two legs better!

After the second reading of this wonderful book, and having just consumed a good amount of Marxist/Leninist works prior, I have come to appreciate it more than I did when I first read it as a kid. The central theme is still the same as that in Orwell’s other popular work 1984, only approached differently. Since Animal Farm came out first just at the end of WW2, Orwell may initially not have wanted to be as direct in his criticism of the Communist Revolution given that at the time of writing, the USSR was still an ally in the war. His tone and manner become more direct in 1984 where the animal characters now became human characters and Napolean gives way to Big Brother! Although I love this book, I cannot help but be filled with hopelessness after reading it. I relate so much with the nihilist Benjamin who gave up hope of any major change even before the dawn of the revolution. For Benjamin - bad things will always happen as well as good and there was no changing it, not even the great revolution dreamt of by good Old Major! Things gradually come through a full circle from oppressor Jones to oppressor Napolean and from Manor Farm to Animal Farm and back to Manor Farm. History has also shown same to be true in the real world. Are we then doomed to just revert to the same kind of society no matter which path we take? Be it socialism or capitalism? Democracy or Autocracy? Is there hope of ever going through a fork that does not eventually lead back to an excuse of a remix of the original path? Comrades, instead of falling prey to nihilism, I will now pour myself a glass of wine and enjoy the evening in melancholy in hopes that I will wake up to a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow!

Title: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
Author: Olaudah Equiano

As a person of Igbo origin, the story of how Equiano grew up in what is now Eastern Nigeria hits home even after almost 3 centuries. His description of the structure of the Igbo family in those days can still be matched with what can be found in some remote villages in the Eastern hinterlands. Especially how the house is structured and shared between members of the family. As a result, I felt the accounts of his sufferings even deeper. There is a debate as to whether his accounts of himself were all true but I think there is no doubt these accounts could have happened to any other black slave if not Equiano. So the argument is irrelevant in the bigger picture of the treatment of slaves. What strikes me is how he describes the difference between how slaves in Igboland (Called Osu in Igbo) were treated compared to how the Europeans treated theirs. And oh the violence and lack of empathy! Some westerners will have you believe that the average black person has a natural inclination towards violence, drawing their statistics from the American society. And even I must confess that at some point in my life, I believed same to be true. But one can easily deduce after a little research that the slight (emphasis on slight!) difference in violence in black vs white neighbourhoods is more of a matter of economic class and not a genetic trait. And that can be found everywhere - poorer neighbourhoods generally have higher crime rates and kids who grew up in such neighbourhoods more inclined to violence as they need this trait for their survival. But hey, I digress. From Equiano’s narrative, however, it becomes clear that at that point in time, traits of violence against other humans actually tipped towards Europeans more so than Africans, though I strongly believe reasons for this can also be found in the societal organisation of Europe at that time and not in genetics.

This book is something that has thrown more light on the state of the transatlantic slave trade to me as a person and more importantly as a black person and is something I would recommend to all.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens

The only thing that seems to have stuck with me from my first reading of this book as a kid was that poor little Oliver asked for more. For some reason, I decided to go at it again now as an adult. And I am glad that I did. The themes that Dickens seeks to explore become clearer in this second reading. The state of parochial communities in England at the time, the style of government that does not penetrate the poor communities and his hatred for the criminal-infested London, and in extension, big cities held together by concrete and metal, and his love for the peaceful and serene countryside. Oliver was but a lens through which Dickens explores these issues. And what a plot twist how the few people who cared for Oliver were at the end somehow related to him originally. Honestly, I was scared at the beginning. I was scared for little Oliver. I was scared that this isn’t one of those stories with a happy ending. I imagined the poor boy would surrender to fate finally and become a real criminal. But I am kind of glad he had his happy ending. And to Fagin I say - see you in hell, My Dear!

Title: The Metaphysics of Morals
Author: Immanuel Kant

This was a tough one and some of the arguments were so convoluted that it requires a trained philosophical mind to properly digest them. However, I did note some points of interest in the discourse. One can feel Kant’s general distaste for empiricism as ideas according to him predate experiences and hence one cannot make conclusions on such ideas based on experience. The value of a will is intrinsic and independent of the result or fact of the execution of such a will. Thus, our value as rational beings with a will is independent of anything external, even God. And as for reason, it was given to us by nature even with the uncertainties that come with it. Couldn’t nature have left us with simple instincts that optimise life functions? Was nature gambling or reason was a necessity for each rational being to optimise their life functions by their own will? So how do you measure the value of your decisions while exercising your free will? Importantly, any maxim that supports your decision must have the ability to apply as a universal law without contradicting itself!

Title: The Death of Ivan Ilych
Author: Leo Tolstoy

Always amazes me how Dostoevsky and Tolstoy lay bare the feelings of people - that inner self that hides away from the public, the ugly but unapologetic true self. Surely, this can’t happen to me, Ivan Ilych thought to himself. Yes, this thing, this death has happened to heroes but surely it cannot happen to someone who is convinced, nay, who lived his life right! Oh, the insufferable colleagues and friends to whom Ilych’s anguish and imminent death are no less ordinary than a cock’s crow at 6 am. For them, it is simply another opportunity. Even for Praskovia Feodorovna, Ivan Ilych’s death would simply be an inconvenience.

For what reason can God let a righteous man die? he asks. Death answers: None, it just is. Can things simply just be? But there’s always hope and Ivan Ilych will cling to that hope with the last of his breath. Anger, disdain, sorrow. Repeat. Then finally…acceptance. Just a few minutes before his death, he found peace. He understood his death wasn’t a punishment which he views as unjust. His death simply is.

Title: Stoics and Epicureans
Author: Daryl Hale

A pretty good introduction to the two different and popular approaches to philosophy in the Hellenistic period. While the Epicureans believed in the pursuit of human pleasure(more about attaining goals within the human realm and period of life than living for the divine and afterlife; not to be confused with self-indulgence) and that we are in full control of our faith, the stoics diverged from this, believing that we are part of a whole and that our life is designed such that the totality of nature’s goal is achieved. For the stoics, a big role in our life is played by something external to us that we cannot control. This distinction makes it easier for Stoic scholars to incorporate the idea of God and religion more into their teachings compared to the Epicureans. Furthermore, abstract notions are foreign to the Epicureans who believe that the sole source of truth is perceptions, in other words, they are heavily biased towards empiricism. On the other hand, the stoics believe in more abstract definitions of a concept using formal methods of logic before being confirmed by practical observations and that there are things outside the realm of our perception that we can only theorise about. To reinforce this, they borrow heavily from the rhetorical method of the Socratic inquiry.

I think there are things to be learned from both approaches but the stoic approach seems to have gained more followers among modern thinkers.

Title: The Double
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Another Dostoevsky masterpiece! And a particularly earlier one in his career, so that it offers us a view of how the writer progressed in his pen style. However, it bears all the marks and spirit of Dostoevsky which I have come to really love. I was already smiling on the very first page, aware that a treat awaits me. From what I have gathered so far, this earlier work of his is heavily influenced by Gogol but I am yet to read Gogol (shame on me!) so I have nothing to say to that effect, but I’m now quite curious about Gogol and will definitely add him to my reading list after this.

As usual, Dostoevsky lays bare the mind of his characters. Mr Golyadkin is an awkward low-ranking bureaucrat who is overly sensitive about people’s perception of him and wants things to be just as “they ought to be”. But his awkwardness makes him antisocial. Honestly, in a weird way, I saw a little bit of myself in our hero and was made even more aware of my own awkwardness which breeds social anxiety. To make matters worse, the good Mr Golyadkin gets a doppelgänger! A fellow who goes by the same name and looks the same! What a fate! I mean, “which honourable member of the society gets a double?” This must be a punishment of some sort. Nature has decided to play games with poor Golyadkin. Or are these hallucinations? Things even get worse as this new double, Golyadkin junior, attempts to steal the place of our hero and claim what is left of his good graces! What a scoundrel! Yes, you heard me, a scoundrel!

There are a good number of interpretations of the phenomenon Dostoevsky used in this short story but there seems to be no consensus on what the author was trying to convey exactly. In my own view, I see Golyadkin Jr. as the incarnation of the hero’s thoughts. Being aware of his awkwardness and poor social standing, he secretly wishes that he had another personality. One that belongs, one that is accepted by society. And that is exactly what he gets. This new double has all the qualities of the hero but with more social charms and is more agreeable. But our hero also learns a lesson. A different version of him could also be very cunning and mischievous. Though blessed with social charms and simply an angel in public eyes, in reality, he may not possess those other good qualities of nobility and honour as the hero.

Whichever interpretation the author had in my mind we may never know but regardless, the book is definitely a good read for the writing style alone.

Title: The Wretched of the Earth
Author: Frantz Fanon

At the beginning, the Marxist call for a violent revolution came off as too radical to me. As someone who has read a good share of Marxist works, I do appreciate that radical approaches are what we need sometimes, but I was not yet convinced the magnitude Fanon called for was relevant in this context. I am by nature a pacifist and centrist. Always looking for the most neutral grounds, just good enough not to “hurt” anyone. But I grew with Fanon along the pages of the book. By the end of the book, the fire of revolution was burning in me! It was enkindled by pages that brought forth memories of my childhood in a post-colonial society in West Africa. The inferiority complex instilled in the colonised and the reverence of the Metropolis never waned even after years of independence. Fanon lays out an almost chronological plan for the fight against colonialism. From the initial revolution and call to arms to the cultivation of the national consciousness and abolishment of the quasi-national bourgeoisie. The first part of the book almost felt like a manifesto! Marx and Engels would be proud! The latter part of the book discusses psychological issues that arise from the revolutionary struggle, citing examples from the Algerian revolutionary movement. This part truly broke my heart. If I wasn’t already convinced of the need for a radical revolution, I was fully convinced here. And the last section was an interesting one too. Fanon tears down the pseudoscientific beliefs which were still very much rampant back then, that there is a genetic inferiority of the colonial subjects to the colonisers which accounted for the apparent affinity to violence, theft and other behaviours generally considered negative in the moral spectrum, among the colonised subjects. The scientists who proposed that theory strongly believed it had nothing to do with the environment but simply genetics and even theorised different brain structures among the two groups of people. Of course, such theories have long been disproven and abandoned but at the time the book was written, it was still widely believed and acted upon by the colonisers.

I particularly liked this message:

As soon as you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs, there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being.

Finally, after we have gained independence, how do we move forward? Follow in the footsteps of the Europeans? He says:

If we want to transform Africa into a new Europe, America into a new Europe, then let us entrust the destinies of our countries to the Europeans. They will do a better job than the best of us.

Title: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Author: Daron Acemoğlu, James A. Robinson

Summary of their idea - all current successful nations have political and economic institutions that they classify as inclusive, others they classify as extractive. The success or failure of nations is not predetermined by culture, geography or other factors but by politics. So until you fix the politics, your shiny and genius economic policies are bound to fail. But the real question then is, why do some nations have these inclusive institutions while others do not? They made attempts to explain how colonialism played a role but in the case of other countries that didn’t go through colonisation, was the development of inclusive/exclusive institutions pure chance, not predetermined by cultural and geographical factors? While these institutions do play a big role, I think the other factors which they ignored also have their place in the determination of the path of nations.

One of my issues is how they determine a successful nation. They seem to pay a lot of attention to the current state of the world, considering nations like the US as one of the successful ones and others like Egypt as one of the unsuccessful ones. But how exactly do you define a successful nation considering they also agree that even nations with extractive institutions like the Soviet Union tend to have some growth but which do not last long, plagued by the vicious cycle. So how long until you consider a nation successful? This is especially interesting as they consider the US successful which has barely been around for 400 years and had its “inclusive” institutions for a much lesser time while considering Rome which was arguably the most influential nation in the world with a complex economic and social system for a better part of 5-6 centuries unsuccessful. Or even Egypt whose ancient kingdoms spanned several millennia and were considerably developed for their time. So what exactly is the yardstick of success?

The book explored a lot of ancient and modern nations and so provides a good background of economic history which in my opinion is one of its main merits but their major arguments are highly debatable.

Title: Glitch Feminism
Author: Legacy Russell

Honestly, this book wasn’t helpful in any way to someone like me getting to know more about feminism. It was mostly a jumble of abstract concepts with no real practical advice or solution to the issues raised by feminism. There’s just one concept that struck me which I can comment on. Legacy Russel stresses the demand for a utopia while also promoting the queer theory for the glitch feminists. However, the very idea of societal utopia and queer theory contradict themselves. For a utopian society to be achieved, all individuals should have either the same or strikingly similar values across almost all spheres so that such values will become not just mainstream but the only options available. A queer individual who tries to dismantle the dominant social values or has different ones simply cannot exist in such a society. Hence, the idea of utopia here is just contradictory. In fact, as far as humans are concerned, utopia can be very different for different individuals. It could be a field of roses for one and a field of money for another and yet, a field of marijuana for a third. So instead of seeking or demanding a utopia, we should seek or demand opportunities that allow each person to build their own individual utopia without interfering with the utopia of other individuals, and even achieving this is no walk in the park. I understand the book is simply a manifesto whose points weren’t developed in full, but even at that, it lacks no practicality whatsoever.

Title: The Dialogues of Plato
Author: Plato

Major points I noted:

  1. Even though it is authored by Plato, the book is entirely about his teacher Socrates.
  2. Socrates popularized the philosophical method of dialogue which involves a dialogue between individuals punctuated by probing questions which often get answers as “yes”, “of course”, “I agree [Socrates]”. Honestly, the probing gets annoying sometimes. This method is now known as the Socratic method
  3. As is often a debatable topic among philosophers, he believes in God or gods and the spiritual
  4. He subscribes to the idea of the immortality of the soul and reincarnation. He “proves” this with rigorous proof about opposites generating each other, citing that life and death are one of such opposites and so necessarily cause each other. Life begets death and death begets life
  5. For philosophers, he argues that one of their ultimate goals is the liberation of their soul from their body which hinders the philosophical process. In other words, they strive towards death
  6. He is a strong believer in the institution of the state and hence, even though he had a chance to escape death to which he was condemned by the state, he insisted that it would be a move against the state and hence one he is opposed to. Or could it also be that as a philosopher, he truly craved death as mentioned above?

While his method builds upon good logic to argue his position, I do not necessarily agree with many of his conclusions but admire the method nonetheless. For example, let us suppose that life after death is a given and the soul is truly immortal, what is the nature of the existence of this soul and will such concepts as philosophy be a possibility for such a bodiless soul?

Overall, a great introduction to logical thinking.

And that’s it folk!

Happy New Year 2023!


Kenneth Nwafor is a data scientist and software developer with great experience in the tech industry. He loves to write about tech, science and life in general.