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Welcome to 2023 – Time for a fresh reading list

Like it or lump it, the new year is upon us. “They” say (based on unknown data sources and no research methodology) that by the 2nd week of a new year, people have abandoned all their new year’s resolutions. My resolutions are to find as many good books to read as I can and to write about them on this blog. The key word here is new: new books and new authors. But where to start? With music, you can copy the listening habits of someone you like on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Right now there are 2452 episodes of “castaways” recommending their favourite tracks. But what about books?

Whose recommendations?

I find that books usually meet my expectations if I share some points of view with whoever recommended them. For instance, I often agree with the acerbic comments from the film reviewer William (Will) Jordan, on his channel The Critical Drinker. Even (or particularly) when he says a film sucks, I watch it to find out if I think the same. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but it’s fun to find out.

The same goes for the in-depth literary and film analyses by Tom van der Linden on his channel, Like Stories of Old. (Though I am sometimes hard pressed to keep all his ideas straight in my head.)

‘Orrible, ‘orrible reading lists

There are these lists of books to read just about everywhere on the internet at this time of the year – on book blogs, review aggregator sites, and sites that spread social media rubbish. Under the pretext of guidance, the lists on these sites are mostly clickbait, or used to promote and sell specific books, handily on the lists. I am sadly including Goodreads in this list of no-good listers, as well as most “Books” contributors in the mainstream media. The lists, often by nameless authors, have nothing to do with literature or writing quality.

I only take recommendations seriously if 1) I have some idea who the person who recommends them are in real life – one real person, not a bunch of nameless “content creators”, 2) the author is qualified to do so, and 3) their opinions are based on sound criteria or theoretical principles. (So, am I? I guess I am – qualified, that is.)

Interesting thinkers

Occasionally, entirely by accident, I discover someone who actually has the credentials to be able to make evaluations that you can take seriously. I say “discover”, because their vlogs and podcasts are not primarily about music, films or literature, but about politics, history and science. Me, being a “lazy b’ism” (as we gently insult each other in my family), would rather watch programs on easier subjects.

Vlad Vexler – Deep dive into philosophy, history, music and politics

Vlad Vexler is one of such discovery: he does deep, thought-provoking discussions and analyses of the Russia-Ukraine war. Since he is British but was born in Soviet Russia, he often makes cultural references that are new to me. I have to admit though, that he goes way deeper into the meaning, form and aesthetics of classical music than I can ever understand. His credentials are impressive: University of Oxford, M.Phil in Political Theory; University of East Anglia, Ph.D in Philosophy; University of East Anglia, BA in Politics and Philosophy.

He did a fascinating programme in which he explains how and why history repeats itself in Russia (screen shot, above). I was idly listening to it with half an ear when his video featured a clip in which the sound track was the klezmer played by Oscar Zehngut, recorded around 1910. It sounds eerie. But what struck me is his choice of soundtrack.

Until then, I knew very little about klezmers – I had a vague idea it was a violin but not something so specific, with specific methods of playing it, and a specific genre of music associated with it. As one of many idiosyncratic associations, he also introduced me to the work of film maker Andrei Tarkovsky and his enigmatic, haunting film, Stalker. So I have to force my addled little brain to pay attention when listening to and watching to his podcasts and vlogs.

Lex Fridman – Dissecting technology, art, cognitive science, and everything else

Another discovery was Dr. Lex Fridman, Research Scientist at MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), since 2015. Fridman is young, handsome, multi-skilled, staggeringly well-spoken, witty, and has a mind like a scalpel.

Which brings me to why Fridman is on my list of people whose book recommendations I pay attention to.

What is Lex Fridman reading?

To start the new year, Fridman published his annual list of books to read. As with most other public figures, he also published it on Twitter and unleashed a firestorm of idiotic comments, many adversarial. (I could only groan at that.) Books are as different and unique as readers are. Every single book will be received and interpreted differently by its reader. That is how people’s brains work. If people have a shared background or similar interests or tastes, they may read and recommend the same books. So, to say his choices are “bad” or “stupid” or whatever “-ist” label you put on it, is simply pointless and shows how stupid you are. (And my last comment just proves the point – I’m also being stupid: there is no rightness or wrongness to opinions either.)

Fridman says that many of his favourite books are ones that he returns to time and time again, finding new things and enjoying new aspects of the book as he grows older.

The same goes for me. I read and re-read certain books all the time, and every time I do, I find something new to appreciate.

Here is Fridman’s reading list. The list represents a wide range of genres, as well as classics, new writing and what could be viewed as prescribed reading. I’ve put ticks next to the ones I’ve read, and a few comments. I think I’ll read On Writing, by Stephen King, next.
How did you do?

Lex Fridman’s reading list for 2023

“Motivation for Sharing: I usually make a goal reading list for myself privately, but in this case  I chose to do it publicly so that folks who are interested might join me on some of the books. That’s why I tried to set a schedule for it, with a target day to finish by, so people can sync up their involvement. Some stories/books take 1-2 hours, and some take 40+ hours to read (not counting the time to pause, think & write down notes). If you join in, please take as long as you need to enjoy the book. The idea of many people reading the same book at the same time is exciting, like we’re taking the journey through that world together.”

Lex Fridman on his website (retrieved Jan. 09, 2023)

(My – Seven Circumstances – comments are in brackets.)

  • “Sun, Jan 8 – 1984 by George Orwell ✓ (Of course.)
  • Sun, Jan 15 – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams ✓ (Over, and over, and over)
  • Sun, Jan 22 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Sun, Jan 29 – The Stranger by Camus
  • Sun, Feb 5 – Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Sun, Feb 12 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac ✓ (A bit dated, but it’s an expression of a certain mindset.)
  • Sun, Feb 19 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Sun, Feb 26 – The Art of War by Sun Tzu ✓ (Yes, but didn’t quite understand all of it.)
  • Sun, Mar 5 – Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway ✓
  • Sun, Mar 12 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke ✓
  • Sun, Mar 19 – Animal Farm by George Orwell ✓ (Also, who hasn’t?)
  • Sun, Mar 26 – Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel ✓ (Read as part of Psychology studies at university.)
  • Sun, Apr 2 – Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Sun, Apr 9 – Metamorphosis, Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka
  • Sun, Apr 16 – The Plague by Camus
  • Sun, Apr 23 – Player of Games by Ian Banks ✓ (Have read it too many times to count.)
  • Sun, Apr 30 – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Sun, May 7 – The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ✓ (Oh, yes. I still love it.)
  • Sun, May 14 – Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky
  • Sun, May 21 – Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  • Sun, May 28 – Dune by Frank Herbert ✓ (Yes, but only the trilogy: Dune (1965), Dune Messiah (1969), and Children of Dune (1976.) The other sequels and prequels by Herbert, and his successors, are just not as good.)
  • Sun, Jun 4 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley ✓ (Not at all what you might think it is.)

“Here’s some other suggestions I’m considering. Others are welcome:

  • The Dead by James Joyce
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Ward No. 6 by Anton Chekhov
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand
  • The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
  • The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
  • Nightfall, Last Question by Isaac Asimov
  • The Little Trilogy by Anton Chekhov
  • The Nose, The Overcoat by Gogol
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad ✓ (Yup. Reread it often too, particularly since so many other films and novels, like Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah, relate to it.)
  • Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • The Prince by Machiavelli ✓ (Again, I’m no military historian so much of this went over my head.)
  • Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee ✓ (Truly depressing. But typical J.M. Coetzee. A rather awful depiction of South Africa.)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy ✓ (You need to brace yourself before tackling anything by Cormac McCarthy.)
  • Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
  • Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • On Writing by Stephen King (So far, I’ve only read extracts.)
  • Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick ✓ (Of course – a Sci-Fi classic.)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes ✓ (Another Sci-Fi classic.)
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (I’m sure I have – But why can’t I remember it?)
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank ✓(Very sad.)
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov ✓ (Long, convoluted, philosophical, confusing…)
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
  • Dead Souls by Gogol
  • 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
  • Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (If you haven’t, you should read the entire trilogy.)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  • Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter
  • The Idiot by Dostoevsky”

The cute kids in the featured image of this post are me and my twin brother when we were about 6 years old, I think. Our parents were teachers and librarians and we pretty much grew up with our noses in books.
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