[b] History of the Russian State – III. Between Asia and Europe. From Ivan III to Boris Godunov (Boris Akunin, 2015)
Third volume of Boris Akunin’s massive work on the history of Russia is called Between Asia and Europe because in this period the country gradually turns away from Asia, where it belonged since it was subdued by the Tatars and Mongols, and drifts towards Europe, which becomes the avant-garde of erstwhile civilization. The book covers a little over 100 years from enthronement of Ivan III, who was the first grand duke to separate himself and his state from the remains of the Genghis Khan’s empire and who founded the political entity the author calls ‘the second Russian state’, through the reign of his worthless son Vasiliy III, through the horrible years of Ivan IV the Terrible, and to the times when the dynasty, along with the state, started to decay and eventually disintegrated in the last years of Boris Godunov’s reign.
As the first two books of the series, the 3rd is an extremely captivating read. It tells about the period of Russian history, when the worst qualities of its people’s attitude to power were born, ones that are still haunting the country today. Besides learning about how the Russian state came to be and acquired the most long-living of its qualities, both ugly and interesting, this book will be exceptionally beneficial for those who want to have understanding of the historical process of Russia, learn about event and personalities of the epoch.
The work is structured differently from the previous two, reflecting in this respect the structure of the period. The most fascinating part of it is, of course, the one about Ivan the Terrible, who really was one of the most curious and controversial figures of Russian history, and also one of the most horrifying ones. Events relating to his reign are retold with heavy use of original and secondary sources, but in a language that makes it easy to comprehend; from what I can tell, everything is retold rather objectively. Which applies to the rest of the book, too.
I think over time Akunin’s writing becomes better – not that he lack experience or anything, it’s just non-fiction is different from literary fiction. The 1st volume was a bit loose, with, occasionally, too frivolous of a mood; by volume 3 the author’s style becomes much more solid and serious, while remaining just as light and refreshing.
The further I read Akunin’s non-fiction, the more I like it. And it’s not just interesting, it’s also highly beneficial, for it dissects the history, which is a dull and heavy subject for many, in a way that it becomes comprehensible and exciting. Highly recommended.
The World Until Yesterday is a major research of the life in those so-called primitive societies – tribes, chiefdoms, etc. – that still remain on the Earth today. It’s a close look into their daily practices, and a comparison with how the corresponding areas of life are dealt with by us, inhabitants of modern WEIRD* societies. The author tries to single out those features and practices of the aborigines of Africa, Papua New Guinea, South and North America, that can – at least in theory – improve our lives under the conditions of overabundance of sugar, salt and food in general. A separate chapter is dedicated to the theory of religion – why, to what purpose, and whether it could’ve gone any other way (spoiler: no).
Although the book is really great through-out, that chapter on religion is probably the best piece: it can be read independently, as a sort of treatise, for it elucidates the matter thoroughly and relatively completely – at that, without going too deep into the history of religion, and without being boring.
Chapters on salt and sugar are interesting as well: most of the stuff told in them is rather well-known, but primarily to people who were curious about the matter; it will surely be very useful to those who don’t know much about the subject. Also, the current knowledge of the matter is laid out in a compact and simple, although not at all simplistic, manner, so that it’s quite easy to grasp.
I mean, the language of the book could have been better – there were a lot of parts, where it was more careful than elegant, but ultimately it’s not a big deal, because it still feels clean and reads easily. And it definitely isn’t boring. In fact, some parts are quite thrilling.
Author’s insight into the lives of the primitive people (for lack of a better term) is truly amazing. Basically, I don’t think there exist anything else like this book – and not only because of the Diamond’s conclusions and reasonings, but also because of his unique experience of living in Papua New Guinea combined with his ability to recount events and ideas. I feel really grateful for this book. I would surely like to visit some of the places mentioned in it personally, but for now this is the next best thing.
Finally, an important feature of this work is that the author does not idealize the primitive societies, and does not really sets them against the so-called civilized ones; the whole idea of the work is that, upon sensible approach to things, methods of both those types of communities could be combined to achieve a perfect or near perfect combination and thus improve the quality of life.
All in all, I’m extremely glad that read it, even though it took me quite a lot of time – the book is rather large. To me that only means more of a good thing. Highly recommended.
* WEIRD stands for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.
Ray Dalio “is an American billionaire investor, hedge fund manager, and philanthropist. Dalio is the founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds.” In his book, titled ‘Principles‘, Dalio articulates the principles (surprising, right?) that allowed him to become the man he is today, as well as to build one of the most successful businesses in the world. The book includes three parts, the first is author’s autobiography, the second enumerates his principles related to life in general, and the third, the largest part, expounds the principles related to business and management.
Thankfully, both principles parts have a short and a long versions. Personally, I read only a part of the autobiography (then I got bored and moved on), personal principles completely, and the brief variant of the working principles.
The autobiography part is optional; the author himself encourages the reader to skip it if he sees fit. From what I managed to read some lessons could be drawn, but all in all there’s too much water.
The other two parts are the complete opposite: there is no water at all, it is basically a manual for a person to go by in life as well as in work, at that which principles to abide and which to ignore is entirely at a person’s discretion; it’s not a rigid system where you take all, or take none – it’s a flexible set of parameters that can be adapted to a particular person or particular situation.
All the things Dalio writes in the personal principles part I managed to come to on my own, meaning he makes a lot of sense all in all. For me it wasn’t much use, for reason stated above, but it would definitely be of great interest to many other people, for all the author’s statements are not only correct and useful, but well formulated and quite precise, too. That being said, I’m not sure they could be perceived fully by a person, whose life experience does not allow him or her to comprehend those things; I have a suspicion that simply reading those principles on paper won’t make a lot of difference by itself, other than, perhaps, providing the reader with a guidebook – but then again, it should be taken seriously for that to happen.
As for the working principles, most of them have to do with building a successful company, which in Dalio’s opinion, basically comes down to creating a proper corporate atmosphere, and chosing the right people. He writes a lot about both these things, as well as some others – this 3rd part is the largest in the book. I read only a short version of it, for I have nowhere to apply those thing at the current moment, but even from that I could tell that here Dalio, too, makes a lot of sense. In fact, I believe, this book can be generally used by achieving businessmen who want to build an efficiently working mechanism of a company.
At the same time reading this book won’t be a lot of fun – although written in vivid, breathing language, it’s way too practical to enjoy. In other words, it’s an instrument, not a source of knowledge.
P.S.: Russian translation of the book kind of sucks. Clearly, the translator was rushed into producing the result, and that affected the quality of the text very much negatively. It’s still readable, though, so – recommended (only to be used for intended purpose).
A Part of Asia – Horde Era is the 2nd book in the Boris Akunin’s series of works dedicated to the history of the Russian state. As it follows from the subtitle, it is dedicated to the period between 1223, when the battle of Kalka river was lost, and to circa 1462, when Ivan III Vasilievich became the grand prince of Moscow, which roughly falls under the rule of so-called Golden Horde, and is commonly known as the Mongol-Tatar Yoke.
Same as in the 1st book of the series the author takes a close look at the documentary evidence available and rethinks some of the dogmata established by the earlier scholars, researchers of the subject. In particular, he challenges the term yoke, which is usually used to designate the whole period under scrutiny, and specifies that it would be more appropriate to mark only a few decades immediately following the invasion as such, while the rest of the period was essentially different and therefore should be treated differently as well.
Especially interesting is the structure of the book: the author dedicates a lot of his effort to studying the history of Genghis Khan’s state, and it subsequent evolution under the Chingisids – through which history he shows the history of the Russian lands, for they were inseparably tied with each other. As it usually goes in the book, Akunin gives a thorough account of the event in the Mongol state (and, later, states), which then allows him to adequately picture the developments in what in the future will become Moscow princedom.
As far as I can tell, the depiction of the historical processes is pretty accurate; this, as well as author’s particularity and coherent and clean-cut structure of the book makes it easy for the reader to capture the essence of the historical evolution of the state in the said period. In the end a complete and clear picture is pretty much bound to appear before the reader.
Author’s style is more or less the same as in the first book. It’s light and forgiving towards the reader; at the same time, this quality of the writing sometimes goes a bit too far, making the text somewhat simplistic, too down-to-earth. But it’s more of an exception rather than a rule, and all in all it’s not an obstructive thing.
As far as the discipline of history goes, Akunin’s work is the best way to learn about Russian history today. Other similar works are either outdated, or excruciatingly boring, or prejudiced. This one I highly recommend.
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt is a famous and, as some people tend to think, controversial work on the fate of the Jewish people in the nazi Germany presented through the prism of the Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Eichmann was a mid-level state functionary in the Third Reich in charge of the Jewish matters; before the Final Solution he was in charge of, basically, logistics of deportation, organizing routs and means of transport for forceful removal of the Jews from the territory of the country. In the Final Solution his role was pretty much the same, except that instead of deporting the people, he organized their movement to concentration and death camps. He escaped justice after the end of the war, and lived in Argentina for quite a while before he was captured by the Israeli special agents; he was brought overseas to stand trial, which lasted for several months, and in the result of which he was executed. Arendt’s work offers a detailed account of the trial and related events, as well as of the documentary evidence offered by both the prosecution and the defence. Moreover, the author points out certain aspects of the events that either go mistreated or get completely missed out, such as the role of the Jewish councils promoted by the nazis to make their exterminating job easier – which is one of the reasons the book is being disputed so vehemently by Arendt’s opponents. Another reason for that is the philosophical concept that went into the subtitle of the book – the banality of evil – that boils down to the idea that one doesn’t have to be consciously evil to do evil deeds, – just blindly following orders might be quite enough.
From the day it was first published (probably, even before that) this book has been in the center of debate, for Arendt has brought up some pretty controversial issues in it, which means, among other things, that when somebody (like me) is about to read it for the first time, it is already accompanied with a cloud of expectations, most of which are far from exciting. In other words, I didn’t expect a particularly interesting reading here, but boy was I wrong.
The book is actually fascinating. There is no comprehensive story of the Final Solution, nor of the nazi state, or regime, or party. There is only the Eichmann’s story, but the thing is, it is vowen into the history of the nazi Germany so tightly, telling it actually sheds a lot of light on this whole deal in general. In fact, by talking about the trial Arendt narrates a lot of completely unobvious stuff, that turns out pretty interesting to read about – for example, how different countries under the German yoke handled the Jewish question imposed on them by the nazi ideology.
Another great thing about this work that it provides a window into the internal workings of the nazi regime. Over the decades following its overthrow an image got formed of a solid, nearly arranged, well-oiled machine of a state, every part of which worked in concordance with all the others. And though it’s not only not true, but could have never been true, for this is not how things work in life, it actually takes a cognitive effort to realize and understand that fact; Arendt’s book would give you a push in the right direction by providing a lot of relevant information on the matter, that is also strangely interesting to take in.
Through-out the work the authors seems to be very rational and smart in her judgements; she never allows herself any stretches and always strictly abides to rules of logic and keeps within the limits of the information available to her. Her writings are stylistically calibrated and consistent; her language is clear and precise.
In short, I enjoyed reading this book quite a lot for multiple reasons. Highly recommended.
Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently by Beau Lotto is an analysis of the ways we tend to think and the ways we perceive the world from the standpoint of a neuroscientist, as well as some ideas on how we can improve them. The main notion of the book is that our brain did not evolve to see the things around us accurately, but rather efficiently, which is a completely different thing. As the title suggests, the author believes that deviating from the patterns of our brains, as well as those imposed on our thinking by the society and conventions, would be the best way to live your life, provided, of course, that creativity and self-improvement is what you want.
This is a good book, for it does set the reader on the path of a clearer understanding of how things work, thus offering him or her the opportunity to evolve. Most of the thoughts and ideas this book consists of are not all that new – I came to some of the same conclusions all by myself, for example, and I’m not the brightest mind in the world – but by gathering them under the same cover and organizing them in a relatively structured way, Lotto made a step further, which is very commendable, I believe, and useful for others. There were, of course, new ideas, as well. The examples given are mostly quite fresh and rather interesting.
The work is executed in a very peculiar way, and includes not only traditional pictures, but also visual illusions and even moving pictures examples, so to speak; however, some of that fun gets lost in the electronic version of the book.
The author’s style is not very smooth; generally speaking, the book is written quite nicely, there is definitely a character present there, but I think lack of writing experience makes Lotto’s finalized text a bit hard to read. Should he continue writing, this would improve, I’m sure of it.
All in all, there are much more reasons to read it than not to read. The appeal to deviate that shines through every paragraph of this work starting with the title, is an important motto, and the more people would perceive it, the better place the world would become eventually. I recommend it to those who wish to better understand the fabric of the social universe, and to enhance themselves.
[b] Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (James W. Loewen, 1995)
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen is an extensive work dedicated to the way the history of the US is presented in the school textbooks. The author uncovers multiple lies, mistakes and errors of omission made by the authors of several most popular history textbooks used across the states. Although he allocates a lot of attention on telling how things with Columbus, Reconstruction, racism, idealism, etc. really were, his main focus is on understanding why and how lies about them are told, the impact of the generally accepted approach on the attitudes of students and their level of knowledge, as well as what can be done to improve the situation.
To tell the truth, the subject of the book is pretty far from the realities of my life – I have never even been to the United States, let alone study their history by their textbooks. But American history nowadays is important to everybody, because it may help better understand how the (currently) most powerful country in the world came to be this way. Turns out, in many ways its path is pretty similar to that of other relatively powerful nations, such as Russians (aka Soviets): it is also full of lies, treachery and blood. Of course, I knew that already; what I didn’t know – or, better say, didn’t fully realize, – is that there are identical tendencies in the way people perceive, learn, and teach the history of their homeland in both cases.
There is a line in the book, when the author holds up the teaching of history in Russia as a model – he believed the discipline has actually redeemed itself from the fallacies of ideologized society. Loewen published his book in 1995, when this may have been the case to some extent, but even then Russian textbooks on history were dull and rigid and full of useless factoids – same as the american ones. Today, under the pressure of representatives of the moronic state, things gradually get worse and worse each year.
But anyway. It was quite refreshing to learn that the great american society is not devoid of tendencies and positions that are burdening the process of learning. Apparently, it is also imperfect – but the difference is that there are people who try to make it all better, whose voices are loud and clear, who cannot be shut, and whose continuous work little by little advances the state of the matter. The mere fact of this book’s existence is a vivid enough fact – in today’s Russia a similar work addressing the problems of teaching and learning domestic history is virtually unimaginable.
As I mentioned above, the book is rather large – it covers 10 different topics, each of which is quite significant; by author’s own admission, it leaves out some other, equally significant topics, but only because the book has to end at some point.
The writing is really great: Loewen has a distinctively academic style that is quite simple and elegant at the same time; his ideas are comprehensive and well-substantiated, but they are also worded pretty much perfectly. It was a real pleasure to read the book.
The Grand Design is the popular science book by physicists Hawking and Mlodinov that addresses the question of why our universe is the way it is, specifically – why are the physical constants fixed at the numbers we know they are, and how the universe came into being. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the history of scientific thought, gradually approaching the present-time state of physics, and its ambition to work out a theory of all. In the later chapters the authors touch upon the string and M- theories, considering them as possible candidates for such unified theory.
The historical part of the book is very interesting – I definitely learned a couple of new things, but most importantly, I got a clearer understanding of the scientific ideas evolutions, not to mention the actual ideas of some of the renowned names. A lot in the book is about the quantum theory, which is more difficult to grasp; same goes to the 11 dimensions thing, and M-theory – that stuff is pretty difficult in itself, and even though the language applied by the authors in describing strives to be as simple as possible, there is still the basic level below which it cannot go, and that level is rather high.
The authors do not try to hide the weak spots of science, although they do try to compile a theory explaining them. But I still do not know how exactly the picture that incorporates Big Bang is technically possible. Not that it makes me wanna turn to religion or anything. I do agree that the concept of god is not necessary to explain the universe (it also doesn’t really explain anything), but modern science still doesn’t have all the answers, and that sucks.
But all in all the book is beneficial and, I think, cannot do anything but good to the evolution of a person’s mind.
Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond is a popular science treatise on various aspects of human sexuality, the reasons why they are how they are, and how do we differ from other animal species in that respect.
The book was quite educational for me – I learned a number of new things, some of which were pretty fascinating. Diamond has a compelling understanding of how sexuality works, and he tells about it in a language simple enough to understand, but not too much, so nothing important gets missed out. Along the way he also tells about the sexuality of different animal species, and curiosities related to them (such as, what is the reason for a she-mantis to eat away her copulating partner). He bases his conclusions on the hard-core scientific findings recounted in corresponding papers, as well as his own observations (for he is an anthropologist who studies some not-exactly-civilized cultures).
I found the author’s style to be easy-going enough – he puts in a joke once in a while, though not too often, which helps to dilute the overall seriousness of the work. But, I believe, his wordings could have been more eloquent. Of course, it’s not that big of a deal, and certainly cannot be a deal breaker.
The book all in all is interesting and informative.
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is an attempt to glance into the future of us, undertaken with great precision and attention to the trends that currently drive forward the development of humanity.
Harari provides a rather interesting view of the humankind’s history by showing it from a bird’s-eye view, so to speak. He makes a number of compelling arguments and creates a comprehensive picture in which I don’t see any actual weak spots. The humanism does indeed look like a religion; communism and nazism are, in fact, the extreme versions of humanism; the moderate humanism is a more efficient and less erroneous system of mass organization; but as powerful as it is, with the development of technology it is destined to reshape or maybe even disappear entirely – under the pressure of such alternatives as transhumanism and dataism.
I don’t feel very comfortable about many things he touches upon in this book, but I also can’t argue with them. All Harari’s mental models seem extremely plausible, as unsettling as they are. I believe, he is exceptionally discerning; he has the ability to seen the inner essence of things, and perceive the most important tendencies of social evolution, as well as threads connecting various parts of the extraordinarily complex machinery of human society. He doesn’t seem to have any special interest to say things that he’s saying, which makes him all the more convincing.
The english version of the book is prepared by the author himself, and is written in a wonderful language, which is rich and lively, but not overly complicated, and well-structured, so that it’s relatively easy to understand. I really enjoyed reading it.
This book is the kind you need to approach with an open mind, and if you do, it would reward you with a little better understanding of the world around us, of where it came from, and of where it’s probably headed.
[b] History of the Russian State – I. A Part of Europe – From the Beginnings to the Mongol Conquest (Boris Akunin, 2013)
A Part of Europe – From the Beginnings to the Mongol Conquest is the first book from the series dedicated to the history of the Russian statehood. It is quite obvious which period it covers from the subtitle.
I gotta say, I’m really impressed with this work, not to mention that I enjoyed reading it immensely. There are 3 huge advantages this project has in comparison with earlier works of similar nature and official textbooks.
First: it compiles all known sources, including available documents and archeological findings, in a way that makes the course of history look consistent, logical, and, most importantly, understandable. Akunin has the ability to point out what events of the period are important and what are merely circumstantial; he emphasizes the first kind and only mentions the second. When I was studying history in school and later in university, I always found it impossible to figure out what exactly was going on during the period of feudal fragmentation, because there were so many princes and wars, and other events, and no teacher managed to point out which of them actually mattered. Akunin does just that, so now I can say that now I at least have an understanding of that part of history where before there was no understanding at all. It is also quite important that the author is very critical to his sources, and advocates the scientific approach to evidence in general.
Second: the book is written in such a language that makes it incredibly interesting to read, which, considering Akunin’s substantial writing experience, is not that surprising, I suppose, but pleasant nonetheless. I found myself totally fascinated by more than one episode of that ancient history, while I had no idea it is so interesting before. The actors of those times appeared before me as living, breathing people who were motivated by conscious aspirations as well as emotions and biases and weird ideas, just like people are today, and that is really appealing.
And third: Akunin does not try to force any sort of concept on the reader; all he does is he puts all the pieces of information together, as fragmentary as they sometimes are, and lets the reader judge for himself, while providing guidance at the same time – gentle and not at all obtrusive or all-knowing.
I seems to me that Akunin’s all-encompassing work is one of the best things that ever happened to discipline of the Russian history.
The History of England is a series of books by Peter Ackroyd in which he retells the history of what has eventually became Great Britain. He deliberately excludes Ireland, Scotland and Wales from the narration, and concentrates on the central state. The first book is dedicated to the earliest period of the land and up to enthronement of the Tudor dynasty.
It’s well-written and interesting to read. You can definitely get a sense of English history and set the events in relative order in your mind. I highly recommend it as a composite text-book that has taken into account all the relative sources known today.
At the same time I wish it would be more elaborate. This is a huge chunk of history we’re talking about, there are a lot of knowledge about it, and the further it goes, the more there is; yet, all of the events are presented in a compact, minimalistic even, way that misses on a lot of detail. Of course, I can always consult other sources for that, but let’s be honest – I probably won’t do that, and barely anybody would, there’s just too much stuff to read in general, new books are being published every single day, and the subject is not that fascinating. No, a work of history in our times needs to include everything, – everything scientifically relevant, that is. Sure, with those details added, the volume of the book would’ve skyrocketed, but I think Ackroyd would’ve managed to make it interesting nonetheless.
Also I noticed that Ackroyd sometimes is not very critical to his sources and allows for a mythological or biased piece of data to slip into the narrative; but these cases are rather rare as far as I can tell.
All in all, it’s a great work, and I wish other countries would follow the example and create modern expositions of their respective histories that would enclose all the new information we have.
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh is a comprehensive story of a mathematical construction that has become known as Pierre de Fermat’s Great Theorem. For the benefit of the reader, the author starts his narrative way before the theorem was first conjectured in 1637, throws some light on the origins of mathematics in general and follows the history of the art by describing some historical landmarks directly related in this way or another to the matter at hand. The whole reason this book was even written is because after more than 300 years of fruitless attempts to solve the riddle, in 1995 Andrew Wiles, a Princeton professor at the time, finally presented his proof of the theorem, which became one of the most sophisticated and complex mathematical works in history, and took him a decade of concentrated effort, and in a broader sense – his whole life.
The book really is comprehensive – it touches upon a lot of subjects, most of which are described in a lot of detail, so in the end history of mathematics appears as a continuous, albeit faltering, pathway, and this, I think, is a great achievement of the author. He also has an ability to retell mathematical stories so that they are interesting to read, and with language simple enough even for me to grasp without any problems.
On the other hand, it lacks certain lightness: Singh is rather a journalist than a writer, he has a sturdy, down-to-earth style that can never be characterized as brilliant. But this is non-fiction with educational and not entertaining purpose, nobody needs brilliant here, it’s just unpractical (and may be distracting).
This is a really good book that will tell you a lot new stuff about mathematics – unless you know it all already, of course, but I didn’t, so it was very educational for me. I cannot but recommend it for everybody.
Mortality by is a short collection of essays and notes written by Christopher Hitchens, an acknowledged journalist and thinker, in the period after he was diagnosed with cancer and before he died of it, – all related this way or another to the obvious subject.
Well, couple of things. First of all, all the texts, except probably for the latest notes, are absolutely brilliant in the form just as much as in the essence. It was a wonderful pleasure to read all those neatly arranged words, and the fact that they summed up to some really meaningful things only made it more intense. On the other hand, the author’s style is obviously journalistic, which is sort of specific, but it definitely works for this concept, and maybe for other Hitch’s ideas too, which I would verify eventually by reading his other books.
Of course, knowledge of the book’s history makes the process of reading it not only enjoyable, but also quite sad a little unnerving. Especially those last notes he made but had no time to brush clean. The contents of the book in general is likely to push your thinking towards the matters of death and dealing with death, which is a healthy thing to do once in a while. This work, albeit short and maybe a little too refined sometimes, serves this purpose well.
[b] Sedition. Ideological Dissension in USSR Under Khruschev and Brezhnev 1953-1982 / Kramola (Kozlov, Mironenko, Edelman, Zavadskaya, 2005)
Kramola by the group of authors is an annotated collection of declassified documents related to the matter of the state persecution of ideological dissension of various kinds in post-Stalin USSR. Papers written by people who lost faith in the validity of the soviet version of communism are cited from their criminal case files. Cases described in this book preceded the dissidents movement, or went in parallel with it, although some people mentioned in the book were later dissidents as well.
The book is extremely scrupulous, it has all the signs of decent academical work; parts written by the authors are in good, readable language. In fact, the most interesting part of this work is authors’ commentary to the presented documents. Docs themselves are for the most part depressingly similar and boring, even though I realize very well that each and every one of them has a breathing person’s life behind it. All of those people were unjustly ruined by the state, some never recovered, but still the officialese influences the perception of their stories big time. However, few were quite unusual, which might be a good reason to read this book anyway.
If one would be able focus on the actual content of the stories, and would manage to look past the terribly tedious wordings of the KGB and militia officials at that, he or she would discover some pretty great material for reality-based fiction works (or whatever). All in all, even though dry and not spectacular at all, this book may be exceptionally helpful for understanding of the soviet history, especially that of the common folk and the society.
Einstein’s Greatest Mistake by David Bodanis is a biography of the famous scientist that concentrates mostly on the twists and turns of his scientific career, but touches upon his personal life as well – to the extent necessary for better understanding of his persona. It gives nearly as much attention to explanation of his concepts and ideas as it does to the events of his life.
The main idea of the book is that Albert Einstein’s biggest mistake, one that was created by an unfortunate overlap of circumstances and eventually led to his alienation from the world scientific scene, is that at a certain point he started to believe that if the science of empirical evidence contradicts his ideas, it’s because the evidence is insufficient or interpreted incorrectly, and that he would be proven right in due course, same as it happened with the general relativity, i.e. he extrapolated, unreasonably, one particular case to all potentially similar cases.
The book is written in a light, easy to read manner; the author tries really hard to make complex things sound not overly complicated. The narrative is mostly about the primary subject, Albert Einstein’s life and works, but there is also a number of interesting insights into related themes, like what was the sum of knowledge at the end of XIX century – what Einstein started with, or the story of his ideas being proven through the efforts of astronomers and mathematicians. All of it constitutes a coherent and intelligible narrative that is interesting to follow throughout.
Even though I can’t tell that I fully understood how general relativity works (and some other things, too), I definitely learned a couple of new things from this work, and I enjoyed reading it quite a lot.
Wittgenstein’s Poker is a reconstruction of events in the history of philosophy involving Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein that lead to a confrontation between them at the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club in 1946. More broadly, it’s a careful and comprehensive look into both of those great philosophers, their lives and works, and their uncertain, but definite relation.
The book is pretty well-written, I can’t deny that (the translation into Russian is also good, not that it matters very much), but I felt like it’s too voluminous at times, which is normal, I guess, considering that this is philosophy we’re talking about, but it still could have been more laconic – to my taste. It is well expiated with quality content, though: insights into both Wittgenstein’s and Popper’s lives and writings, is a great way to catch up with what these thinkers are about, without actually having to read through their works, which can be a bummer, especially when it comes to Wittgenstein. The informational side of the book feels pretty great: it has multiple references, like a proper popular research, and it seems carefully weighted in conclusions.
On the other hand, while reading it, I couldn’t help but think that all those philosophizings (meaning, life work of W. and P. both) are not worth very much in terms of real life. I myself am totally pro-Popper, he is just more rational than Wittgenstein, and therefore makes much more sense (I’d prefer the concept of falsifiability to meaningless attempts at solving superfluous puzzles any day of the week), but ultimately, they both make philosophy seem like a pointless mumbo-jumbo that is of no interest to me whatsoever. Maybe it was this book that made me realize how much I really dislike it.
Be that as it may, the book is a really good work, and it’s also a really good reason to ask yourself what you really think of philosophy, and maybe just settle this matter for the time being within the framework of your own mind.
Piraty, korsary, reidery is a series of essays dedicated to various sides of maritime piracy. It concentrates mostly on the times when Spain, Portugal, and later England started to gain more and more sea power, but also touches upon pirates in ancient times, as well as retraces signs of piracy up to about late 1980s. The book is written by Igor Mozheiko, also known as Kir Bulychev, famous soviet science fiction writer.
The author has chosen a method of leaps: to describe the development of the phenomenon he selects some vivid personalities and tells about their lives sometimes deviating into explanation of related things. Where impossible (like with most of XX century), he simply retells the general state of affairs. His writing style is clear and simple; he is obviously passionate about the subject and spent a lot of time researching it. Although, there is no list of literaterary sources used, sometimes he mentions where the information was taken from, and all those books are primary, meaning they were written my immediate participants or at least witnesses to the events. Also, Kir Bylychev has a very strong reputation as a devotee of scientific method, and I personally have no reason whatsoever to doubt his professionalism. Along with realistic, non-romantic narrative, it makes the book very credible.
I learned new things from this work, and I enjoyed reading it, – all in all, the journey was interesting and worthwhile.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is a valuable and careful account of current scientific knowledge concerning various kinds of – obviously – hallucinations.
The book is parted into several chapters, each dedicated to a certain condition that may cause, under some specific circumstances, auditory, visual, or other sort of sensory delusion. Every chapter is built around case studies relevant to the condition in question; these could be taken from fiction literature, from medical documents and earlier studies of the subject, as well as from dr. Sacks’s correspondence, and his personal practice and experience. The author does offer some conclusions, but they all are always careful and never definitive; he realizes very well how evidence-based medicine works, and he has a knack for transforming that knowledge into a clear and understandable text. It is quite well-written, and interesting from beginning to end. More imporatantly, it’s extremely informative – I learned a bunch of new things, and clarified my general understanding of the matter. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in how it really works.
Yuval Harari’s Sapiens is basically what it says in the title – a brief history of humankind. He reviews the whole period of our species’ existence, and points out the most crucial landmarks of the humanity development, namely the cognitive, the agricultural, and the scientific revolutions. He argues that the dominating role was earned by humans because of the ability to cooperate, which in its turn comes from the ability to believe in things that don’t really exist in physical reality, such as money, gods, nations, state borders, etc.
Besides that main line, Harari also gives a multitude of interesting observations and conclusions, among which the most curious for me was the indissoluble link between capitalism, empire and religion, as well as the intricacy of the happiness issue (are we any happier today than people were 500 years ago? what about 5 000 years ago?), and, most importantly, – incomprehensibleness of our future, as we might become god-like creatures just as likely as destroy our habitat and ourselves irreversibly.
Some of the ideas suggested by the author may be up for discussion, but he doesn’t claim to be holding the ultimate truth about everything, and he’s also a human, meaning he’s just as likely to be mistaken about stuff as everybody else (except, he’s much smarter than the most), so the worst thing that can happen is that reading this book would stir up the spirit of debate in you, which, you know, isn’t bad at all.
The English translation (I think it was made by the author himself, although I’m not sure) is very nicely written – I enjoyed reading it, and it does seem very thorough.
All in all, I’m really glad I came upon this book – I learned a lot of new, interesting stuff, and also, Harari’s summaries and conclusions changed the way I look at the world – probably just a tiny bit, but who knows what it may lead to in the future. Highly recommended.
SuperFreakonomics is a direct continuation of Freakonomics authored by the same 2 guys. It brings up different issues, and sets forth different statistics and data, but all those are the manifestation of the same exact approach applied in the first book. In fact, both of them are just the sets of more or less complete episodes taken from the same collection, which advances a thought that there could be potentially limitless number of them patterned after the first two. This structural typification is not a bad thing, though; just an observation.
This second book too includes some controversial topics, including prostitution and global warming, with the latter one becoming a stumbling block for many researches in the field. Apparently, some of the solutions offered are questionable, and some of the quotes are slightly distorted (without much damage to the meaning, though). Other than that, it’s all the same – exposure of hidden side of things using various methods of economical and statistical analysis.
Just like before, the language is not hard; it’s quite pleasant to read the book, and it’s interesting, too. All in all, it seems significant enough, even though the message is just the same as in the first book, but the specifics, the details are different, and that’s more important. But merging the 2 texts into a single book would make perfect sense.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is dedicated to snap judgements, or thin-slicing as the author calles it, focusing on both positive aspects of the technique (and, consequently, ways it can be used), and the negative ones (and how their influence can be if not excluded altogether then at least minimized). It is written well enough and easy to read; the author’s viewpoint is stated clearly through-out – he surely knows how to draw up argumentation in support of his ideas and bring it to the reader’s notice. The book includes multiple references to research studies and generally produces an impression of a thorough and well-grounded work.
Although, as I said, deficiencies of thin-slicing is just as valid subject of the book as the advantages of it, certain people tend to ignore those parts of the book for some reason, so it is very important to remember that one should not rely exclusively on this method. It is not a substitute for critical analysis, – but it may be a useful addition to it. Of course, some work is required to conciliate these 2 very different approaches, as they seem to contradict each other, but human being is built on conflicting ideas and processes, so ultimatelly there’s nothing impossible here.
[b] Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner, 2005)
Freakonomics has a subtitle (A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) that describes its essence quite precisely; other pieces of self-description occuring in the text from time to time seem to be correct as well, primarily the one that defines the book as something devoid of a unifying idea. It is indeed a set of unconnected, random even, episodes that have only one thing in common – a hidden side (unique for each case, of course), a number of unobvious traits and impact agents that have more influence on a given outcome than we can acknowledge or, sometimes, accept.
The book shows quite definitively that pretty much any event or phenomenon, especially a complex one, has such a side, and that it can be revealed if need be. It reaffirms the value of statistics as one of the means of conducting such exposure. It also confirms high importance of basic power of observation, to which the ability to see patterns is a sort of superstructure. It teaches to identify the clues that might turn out to be indicators of hidden tendencies, and not just separately by themselves, but the clusters of them, too. In theory, the book might cause worsening of apophenia symptoms, but for a healthy mind it would become a bearing pulley, a pillar of thinking and understanding.
It is written in high-quality English, nicely structured and worded, all of which makes it comfortably comprehensible. It’s interesting and important and well-done, all at the same time. Highly recommended for any curious mind.
Names and figures
Conquest of the Incas is a rather extensive work on the Conquista of XV-XVI centuries and subsequent events in the region of modern Peru. It takes into account multiple sources, including written testimonies of direct participants, works of the XX century explorers, and archeological evidence. Author concentrates mostly on early years, up until ancient Vilcabamba’s fall, touches upon the fates of those few royal blood Incas left after it, and then recounts the short history of modern attempts to explore the land scientifically. Hemming’s approach is quite solid, he really tries to look at things objectively, like any good scholar should, and always substantiates his conclusions with evidence, – all of which makes him trustworthy. It’s quite nicely written, too, – save for the imperfections of the translation, there’s nothing to complain about narration-wise, it’s all pretty interesting. The translation (into Russian), though, is not all bad, just flabby and kinda careless, but still readable. I think, I learned a thing or two from this book, and that’s pretty much all I was looking for.
[b] Destructive Psychotechniques / Technologies for Alteration of Consiousness in Destructive Cults (Irina Mitrofanova, 2002)
This book is a little strange. On the one hand, it’s packed with interesting and very useful information, on the other – it really seems to be a forgery: it claims to be a translation of a Timothy Leary work, but he doesn’t have any works by that title (or even remotely close); it also claims somebody named M. Stewart as a co-author, but I failed to find out who that is. Most likely, it was written by Irina Mitrofanova, who is reckoned as a translator and sometimes as a complier, on the basis of her own knowledge and extracts from the Leary works (with Leary being fairly named as the author of those pieces). I don’t know, why did the publishers have to conceal the real authorship, because, as I said, the book is worthy and helpful.
It contains a great deal of information about cults, technologies used to lure and retain cult members, as well as advices how to free people from destructive cults and how to overcome consequences of their minds alterations. I haven’t noticed any dirty tricks in the text – it all seems to be genuine, or at least written by a somebody with strong scientific approach. The writing style is mostly academic, but quite easy to comprehend; some bits are real-life stories, their style is correspondigly different. In general, the book produces an impression of a rather integral work, very decent and smart. One of the most important ideas it’s pedaling is that nobody is safe: no matter how strong you believe your mind to be, you still can be tricked, so it’d be better to avoid this kind of contant at all, – and it gives advice as to how such hidden attacks can be recognized, too.
It’s one of the best works on the subject of destrictive cults I’ve seen, and it’s the only one that’s not just descriptions of different sects. It can help people whose loved ones became trapped in that kind of organization, and also would be effective for those who seek understanding like me.