The solitude and mental calisthenics I have gotten from books in recent months have kept me sane. To get more out of the books I read, I have started summarizing the books I read.
No real theme in my book choices for January. I do see a general shift in leaving behind modern self-help books in pursuit of greener pastures (philosophy, novellas, and plays)
**These are not intended book recommendations. As someone on the receiving end of random and superficial recommendations from society, I don't want to commit this sin to you.**
A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (24/25)
The novella describes a spontaneous chess game between the chess world champion and a lawyer—with a surprising talent for the game—that occurred on a ship voyage across the Atlantic. The novel navigates the life experiences of both players to provide meaningful context to the game.
The novel resonated a lot with me because it explored the psychological impacts of chess on the human mind. For the casual observer, chess is just a board game; but for people who spend meaningful time on chess, it is evident that the game leaves a mental residue on the human mind that is pretty unhealthy when left unchecked.
While it is easy to point to the large number of chess grandmasters that went mentally insane (from Paul Morphy to Bobby Fischer), the more scary anecdote might be how chess impacted my mind personally. I didn't lose my childhood to chess (like most chess grandmasters), I lost 30 minutes each day for around two months, but even that led to some distributing mental thoughts.
To put it succinctly, chess is a zero-sum game and blood sport. No amount of formality can cover up the fact the game is mental warfare between two human minds.
Thankfully, chess is not important enough to me to forsake my mental health. I have placed more constraints around my chess play to manage the negative mental states the game evokes in me.
the following quote explains why I can't simply stop playing chess:
After three days I was beginning to be truly annoyed that his dogged defenses were outmaneuvering my determination to get near him. I had never in my life had an opportunity to take the personal acquaintance of a chess champion, and the more I now sought to form an impression of such a temperament, the more unimaginable appeared to me, a mind absorbed for a lifetime in a domain of sixty-four black and white squares. From my own experience, I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the "royal game," which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect, or rather to a certain type of intellectual gift. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Muhammad's coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all people and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any amateur can try his hand at it; and yet, within the inalterable confines of a chessboard, masters unlike any other evolve, people with a talent for chess and chess along, special geniuses whose gifts of imagination, patience, and skill are just as precisely apportioned as those of mathematicians, poets, and musicians, but differently arranged and combined.
On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (23/25)
Seneca is one of the founding fathers of Stoicism. In this book, he argues most people waste their lives on idle occupations because they are chained to sense desires (lust) and have lost their capacity to live a meaningful life based on self-reflection and intentionality.
He argues that life is not short, but we frequently make that comment because our subjective perspective of time gets warped when we indulge in the world's bait and get lost in sensual pursuits. Furthermore, he argues that although time is more valuable than material wealth or social status, it is not given much attention because it is immaterial and invisible.
His analysis concludes that humanity should drop the fleeting and impermanent pleasures based on the senses and pursue reading the great philosophical texts to learn how to live a meaningful life and potentially become immortal.
An essential book for current times given how parasitic the social media industrial complex has gotten regarding our idle time has gotten.
Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (20/25)
Dostoyevsky explores the perils of the human condition through the life of an alienated and aloof individual who is mentally handicapped by an unbearable habit of mind that forces him to self-analyze every action of his life.
I love this novel because it is the first book I have read with an anti-hero protagonist. Although there is nothing redeemable about this anti-hero called the Underground Man, I found his inner rambling and analysis paralysis when acting in the world extremely relatable.
A unique idea presented in the text is the idea that knowledge and self-development as a worldly pleasure that is fleeting and unquenchable, just like superficial sense desires. There seem to benefits for living an unconscious life as there is no capacity to lose one's mind through excessive self-reflection.
It made me feel less crazy, which I appreciated.
So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport (18/25)
Although American society has taught us the idea to follow our passions when choosing a career, Cal Newport argues this wishful thinking has not proved to be useful for most people. Cal came to that conclusion after researching the critical elements of a meaningful and happy career through research papers and interviews and found that the key was to master rare and valuable skills and leverage those skills to create a meaningful work-life.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (15/25)
This play revolves around two friends waiting for a stranger named Godot to show up for some reason. While waiting for the time to pass, they explore the human mind's existential range when it is left unoccupied.
Reading this book felt strangely medicinal. The book went entirely over my head, so I need to re-read it soon.
The first reading seemed crazy, but the good kind of crazy.
The Road to Character by David Brooks (9/25)
David Brooks explores how changing societal conditions in America in the past century have transformed the social value system from community-focused to individual-focused. He provides examples of inspirational figures from the early 20th century that made a name for themselves by choosing to defer their inner desires for the sake of the public insulations and their greater community.
The lack of coherency and over-zealous Christian self-righteousness made this a chore to get through.