What I have been reading

I have been sharing short reviews of the books that I am reading on Instagram, generating interesting comments, great suggestions for additional readings (and a video), and even a lovely (socially distanced) catch-up with a friend I hadn’t seen in 6 or so years!

I thought that I would share the reviews, here, too. Who knows what other interesting conversations they could generate?

1st book of 2021* – “Bad Blood” by journalist John Carreyrou.

A non-fiction book about Theranos, a biotech start-up which purported to have created technology that could conduct a myriad of clinical tests from a tiny drop of blood collected from the finger. The technology would not only make blood testing much faster and easier; it would also make life more pleasant for people that need to have their blood tested regularly (e.g., cancer patients). It would also open the door for personalised medicine.

The book reads like a thriller. It’s highly engaging.

It shows how power brokers may actually know very little about the subject they are deciding about (in this case, blood science); the power of social networks (in the sociological sense, not the social media phenomenon); and the extent of nepotism in the business and political worlds.

However, this book also brings with it the sad realisation that little (or nothing?) has changed. For instance, we continue to have blind faith in technology (e.g., AI); the cult of personality continues to be an excuse for bad behaviour (e.g., Uber / Travis Kalanick), and trade secrecy continues to be used as a pretence to hide shoddy business practice (e.g., algorithms). 

*Though, it is a bit of a cheat to describe this book as having been read in 2021. I started it in December 2020, and had read about 80% of it, before the start of the new year.

2nd book of 2021 – “How to stay sane in an age of division” by Elif Shafak.

A short book (90 pages), gifted to me by the teen, this Christmas.

Shafak talks about how we are becoming more and more entrenched in our group’s ideas and ideals. She notes the role of social media in amplifying that collective narcissism, not just because of the echo chambers, but also because of the optimism that characterised the early days of SM (e.g., Arab spring). Shafak cautions against the dangers of too much optimism, and advocates telling and listening to each other’s stories.

At the end of the day, this is not a book of actionable advice on “how to stay sane”. Though, I liked the message that it is OK – even good – to be angry, as long as we do something with that emotion. 

After I shared this book review on Instagram, a friend mentioned her TED talk, which is in a similar vein to the message of the book:

3rd book of 2021 – “The age of absurdity” by Michael Foley.

This one has been in my pile of “books to read” for several years. I think it was a gift.

The central idea of this book is that the quest for happiness, in the form of ‘conspicuous consumption, high octane relationships and perpetual youth’ is not just doomed but is, in itself, the source of unhappiness. He blames ‘modern life’ (I.e., post 1970s) for that doomed pursuit, with its emphasis on rights, entitlement, and individualism.

At times, the book felt a bit whiny (e.g., the rant about background music) and non-original (e.g., complaining about youth’s intellectual laziness, or the absurdity of contemporary art). Still, some of the arguments are very prescient, like the attack on science, the ridiculing of experts, or the questioning of objective truths. The breadth of sources – from Seneca to Kafka, including Beckett, Pinker and Schwartz, with a nod to Sitcom series Friends – is really amazing, while the long reference list is a black hole for those that like to check on citations.

Have you read any of these books? Which books have caught your attention, lately?

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