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The Bonfire

08 January 2020

2019 Book Picks

My favourite books for 2019 and why you should read them.

Top Picks

The Future Of An Illusion

Sigmund Freud

This is the one book on this list I feel I cannot do enough justice to. Part of the reason is that I would like to automatically assume that people are already familiar with it. That said, I find it laughable to have to state the importance of Freud's contributions to the fields of psychoanalysis and, later on, philosophy. Along with The Interpretation Of Dreams, The Future Of An Illusion is one of his most widely syndicated books.

Originally published in 1927, it sets the basis for the argument against religion and its fundamental position in the human psyche as an escape from the fear of the unknown. Freud argued that faith - in the sense of belief in the supernatural, rather than the various established religions that serve as its vessel - comes from the infancy of our species and our intrinsic need for protection and approval. Perhaps the most revealing point of the book is the argument that religion serves as the continuation of the protection humans enjoy, first from the mother and later the father, and as such are content, dependent, even, on having a higher figure to suppose such a role later in life. While The Future Of An Illusion takes a psychoanalytical approach to the history, present status and future of religion, it is accessible and comprehensible to one not particularly versed in the specific fields of the author's study. A must-read for anyone seeking to understand the very nature of religion and belief in the supernatural, as well as readers inclined towards the philosophical and moral arguments against it.

Meditations

Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is easily one of the most important books I have read this year. Written by one of the most important figures of the Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius, born in 121 AD was the last emperor of Pax Romana, a 200-year period of inner stability and peace, and also the last of "The Good Emperors", a term coined by Niccolò Machiavelli. Not given the throne by birth as many other before him and after, he earned the respect and praise of his peers, subjects and later governors and philosophers through his humanitarian rule and moral governing of the empire.

Marcus never intended to publish his work; the book comes in the form of inner dialogue and argumentation towards the best way to live one's life according to Nature and acquired morality. A lifelong student of Stoicism, he advocates for the self's independence from pleasure and pain, claiming that these are only natural consequences and inescapable features of a normal existence. A central theme of Meditations is the importance of self-reflection and the analysis of one's judgement of themselves and of others. Cosmic significance is another central theme of the book, with self-improvement and the pursuit of a moral life being the accompanying goals of a full existence.

Meditations is the epitome of what the Stoic movement represents and offers invaluable insight into the mind one of the greatest philosophers to have ever lived. His work has influenced centuries of philosophers and Meditations is one of the books that can confidently still drive humanity forward.

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World

Cal Newport

If we want to be honest with ourselves, we can gracefully concede that most of us tend to procrastinate when it comes to work - either work we love, or work we have to get through regardless. At the beginning of the year I found myself falling in love with programming, but like most, I found my attention easily shifting away from what I had to work on - what I, absurdly enough, actually wanted to work on. Distraction is work-agnostic, admittedly, and I felt I needed to look into the causes and possible solutions to a messy studying process. A simple Google search on productivity books returns Deep Work as one of the first results. Cal Newport is praised for his work on productivity and how to maximize it, and his fifth book is no exception. The aspect he focuses mostly on is the unnoticed effect modern-day life has on our daily routine and how we can consciously invest our time better, while moving away from distractions and social media. As implied in the title, the author argues that knowledge work can only bear fruits if it is unimpeded and unwavering in the face of a continuous stream of distractions. Newport argues that long sessions of study are the only way to internalise a given subject, as even small shifts of attention can ruin even hours of focused work. Also valuable in the book are examples of successful individuals across various disciplines, who - each in their unique way - managed to develop environments and habits in which their concentration can go unimpeded. Carl Jung built his own retreat in the village of Bollingen near Lake Zurich to focus on his writing, J.K. Rowling remained absent from social media while writing the Harry Potter series and Bill Gates used to take two "Think Weeks" per year in an isolated forest cabin to read and think. It should be in everyone's interest to invest their time in the best way possible and, among others, Cal Newport's book offers valuable insight on the subject.

Factfulness

Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling

In the strange era of fear-mongering and disinformation stemming primarily from news outlets and social media, having a glib view of the world and the living conditions of its inhabitants would seem justifiable, to say the least. If you're like most people with a generic daily routine, I would be safe in assuming that the outlets mentioned above are the sole sources of information you rely on. I would even go as far as argue that you are not even making an effort to read the news - or even more so - accurate news. They just happen to appear before your eyes as you are scrolling through Facebook and Twitter. I am guilty of said behaviour myself, and many a time have I caught myself taking headlines at face value without even reading the damn article. This, I claim, is dangerous. It is dangerous because the news are everywhere and if we don't actually make the effort to read it, cross-examine it and scrutinize its author, they subconsciously form our opinions, even on subjects we have no knowledge on.

Hans Rosling's book is the silver lining in this sea of gloom and terror. It is straightforward in testing your perception of the world and through statistics and data from global organizations presents you with the fact that our world is actually improving and rapidly so. You might be thinking that the number of people dying from warfare is increasing. You would be wrong. Child mortality rates in Africa persisting? Wrong. Vaccinated children? On the rise. Child education in developing countries? Soaring. Crime? Declining. Adult Literacy? Child cancer survival? Girls in school? Electricity coverage? All going up. You can also test your biases and faulty perceptions in the form of multiple-choice questions and proceed to be dumbfounded by the answer. Whichever way I put it, I cannot stress enough how important this book is. Instead of thinking of knowing how the world is, you will get to know how it actually is.

After reading it, it comes as no surprise to me how many people I notice every day holding the hardcover. So should you.

The Aquariums Of Pyongyang, Ten Years In The North Korean Gulag

Kang Chol-hwan, Pierre Rigoulot

What comes to your mind when you hear the term "concentration camp"? I'd guess it'd be Auschwitz-Birkenau. Or maybe Treblinka, Chelmno or Dachau. Many would think that such atrocities that were conducted by the Nazis in the 40s are a thing of the past and that after two devastating World Wars we would have moved past such conduct. Most would also be familiar with the tyrannical regime of North Korea that has been ruling the country since the Korean split that started at the end of World War II. Kang Chol-hwan is no stranger to it. An emigrant from Japan, he was promised a lavish life in North Korea, but was imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp for ten years before he managed to defect to the South in 1992.

The author gives a haunting account of everyday life in a place where you could be beaten and tortured and stripped of your human dignity for days on end after showing the slightest hint of disobedience. The Aquariums Of Pyongyang justifies our worst fears about what life in North Korea might be; a reality we wished we could avoid confronting despite the numerous people that have walked through actual hell and lived to tell the story. The book serves as a startling wake-up call to a nation whose practices should have been abandoned decades ago. The concentration camps of North Korea deserve as much attention as the Nazi camps in Poland, the Soviet gulags under Stalin and the hideous and sadistic atrocities conducted by imperial Japan during the 20th century.

You might think that North Korea is just an oppressive state. This books will make you reconsider.

Free Will

Sam Harris

Sam Harris' greatest appeal is that he can explain complex topics in a simple manner. A neuroscientist by trade, he never shies away from discussing philosophical matters, either in writing or on his podcast. Although Free Will spans less than seventy pages, it managed to alter my perception on the concept of free will and whether we actually have it. His conclusions on the lack thereof derive from a series of well-articulated arguments, both of the philosophical as well as purely materialistic and neurological nature. The book offers valuable insight on issues like human behaviour, morals and our daily discourse towards each other, while claiming that a lack of free will does not negate the need for social and political liberty.

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley

I am not very big on novels, but I knew that Huxley's 1931 classic is a staple of 20th century literature and - in hindsight - justifiably so. Although there is no room for comparison, readers that might have read George Orwell's 1984 will be easily able to draw a parallel between the two novels, as they both delve into a dystopian version of our world, experimenting with themes of oppression, significant lack of personal freedom and a stereotypical and sterile existence for the inhabitants of their respective fictional society. While Orwell's 1984 primarily revolves around the oppressive and the totalitarian elements of the elite, Brave New World deals with the deep-rooted rules of class-based affiliation and behaviour; the alphas and the epsilons, the betas and the gammas. Genetic modifications are the underbelly of society and intelligence is the separator between the classes. If you enjoy fiction novels, happen to be an admirer of George Orwell's (and, somehow, Brave New World has evaded your attention), or looking for the next thought-provoking read, Brave New World rightly deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

Notable Mentions

  • Love, Poverty & War by Christopher Hitchens
  • The Road To Wigan Pier by George Orwell
  • Lying by Sam Harris
  • The Other America by Michael Harrington
  • Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam Harris
  • Letters To A Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
  • A History Of The Middle East by Peter Mansfield

Also Read This Year

Note: None of the books listed below are bad or sub-par. Each and every one of them bears valuable lessons and information and should not be disregarded. Depending on your interests, though, you will find that some are of greater value to you than others. They cover a wide spectrum of topics that I found myself interested in and I would recommend each one to you as such. Most of them have received critical acclaim and this is partly the reason I chose to read them among others of similar thematology.

  • The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson
  • The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
  • Tap Dancing To Work: Warren Buffett On Practically Everything, 1966 - 2013 by Carol Loomis
  • Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki
  • Welcome To The Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction Of Greece And The Future Of Europe by James Kenneth Galbraith
  • Notes On A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
  • So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
  • The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do And How To Change by Charles Duhigg
  • Talking To My Daughter: A Brief History Of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis
  • The Heretics by Will Storr
  • A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss
  • On Palestine by Noam Chomsky & Ilan Pappe
  • The Six Day War by Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchil
  • No One Left To Lie To by Christopher Hitchens
  • Money by Rob Moore

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