A person is built by the books he or she reads, the road he or she travels, and the people he or she loves. Not everyone has the resource, ability, and circumstances to encounter the latter two, but most people have the capability of obtaining the first one — books. Books are like the afternoon sunshine, acquiescing the accumulated change of oneself. I read many books, and still have many more unread. I have a “kink” with history, politics, economics, and literature, although I do spend some time everyday checking out the fragmented newspapers. Nevertheless, knowledge is never about fragmented information obtained on social media, but about a profound read. It is very important to squeeze out time everyday to read in depth. Below are six books I recommend in this brisk winter of 2019.
Arguably the second finest book after The Old Man and The Sea of the American classic writer Ernest Hemingway, who is also one of my favourite writes to savour. I have had the fortune to live and visit a few places he had dwelled, such as Paris and Key West. Maybe I’ll spend more of my life tracing the history of his life.
Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls after coming back from being a war correspondent and witnessing the bloody Spanish Civil War. The book vividly describes the brutality of revolution and counter-revolution happened in the country. The protagonist, an American dynamiter assigned to detonate a bridge under the control of Fascist-supported government. Hemingway writes magically, enlivening different groups of people over a short period of 4 days and 3 nights during the war. The book also features a short but heartbreaking romance that can only flare up in the disruptive war.
Reading Hemingway’s book is similar to indulging in a shot of Whiskey on rock. Papa’s books last for a simple reason: they take you to see how large is the sea, how broad is the world, how constructive is the society, how high is the sky.
The book is written by a great yogi Yogananda, one of the early yogis during and after WWII that brought the art and philosophy of yoga further into the lives of the Western practitioners. It’s probably one of the books a Western yogi has to have. It is also the first app that Steve Jobs designed, remaining an integral part of his life until his death.
I practice yoga for a decade now, which counts around half of my life. Yoga is not just an “exercise” of body, but a much more pondering into spirituality, space, life, etc. For me, it is a philosophy. Through the joining of your body to the Source (of the space), you discover more about your power and the meaning for the world. Yoga without the discussion of the “spirit” or the “soul” is not yoga. Similarly, to know yoga is also to know Indian history. That is how one can understand the evolution of this cherishing practice.
The book is the classic of yoga works, telling the life story of Yogananda (as the title of the book illustrates). The yogi interweaves many of his opinions on life and the historical events as he tells his own life story. Although people may find many parts overly “magical” and “unreal” as he claims to have seen the divine manifestation of his master, etc., the book can still help yoga students or non-students understand the transition of life and death, of the emptiness and fullness of life.
3. Iran Awakening — Shirin Ebadi
The book by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebady recounting a historical moment and the before and after. My readers know that I’ve been telling Persian story for some time now. I always welcome relatively impartial discussions on the subject.
Shirin Ebadi illustrates her life story and links many parts of a personal story to the unwrapping of a national fate. During the 1979 Revolution, Ebadi supported the movement, like many similarly highly-educated young women students have done at the time. After the Revolution, the very revolutionary force itself betrays the women supporters – and we all know what happened afterwards. Afterwards, Ebadi starts to fight for women and oftentimes the repressed anti-government intellectuals, using the interpretations of the Shariah law
In general, Ebadi may have gained criticisms now (as many oriental dissidents have done), this particular work of her, in my opinion, has been impartial. The book is mostly personal, getting rid of the lengthy debate on the macro situation, but still allowing the readers to peek through that slice of history. Nobel Peace Award, in my opinion, has been very controversial especially when the recipients are oriental, since many of them tend to be “anti-government” or biased. This book is not of them.
Decades later, Ebadi also writes another sobbing story about how her husband betrayed her with an affair that was deliberated taped by the government to quench her husband’s support on her. The piece is posted on NYT: Tricked into Cheating and Sentenced to Death. The story is again personal, very much heartbreaking. What I see is not just about the ironclad politics, but how a couple unfortunately lost their faith in each other as the yearlong exile kicks in.
This book is the classic of social science genre, although it can be lengthy or not so “classy” for many professionals. I had the fortune to take a few jaw-dropping classes about politics at top-tier institutions. In comparison with what we learn from those classes or what other academics write, this book can only be considered in the “popular academic book” lane. Notice, the authors spent considerable time and energy for marketing prior to the sales of the book, inviting all the big or popular names in social science you can possibly imagine. Many argue that the book keeps repeating a point of view and adds too many unnecessary cases. Technically, the authors could convey their view in a way shorter piece. Nevertheless, ploughing through the book allows the readers to access to history that they otherwise won’t review.
The book believes that “extractive” countries will fail. On the contrary, “inclusive” countries can succeed. What are extractive countries? Those are countries that fail at establishing a sound democracy. Countries that are ruled by a stubborn elite class will fail. Examples gives to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe regime. Inclusive countries succeeded at transitioning to fully democratic countries, where the power of elites is much constrained. For example, in the US, even the 3-times president Franklin D. Roosevelt could not do as he wished.
I personally think the book has stood in a very Western perspective and ignores many other factors of how countries and histories are constructed. Nevertheless, it is one of the books to tackle for beginner social scientists and for the badge of honour of reading something classic.
Cinque Méditation sur la Beauté as it is said in French, is one of my favourite books. The author François Cheng for me is one of the greatest philosophers, essayists, thinkers, of our time. I have mentioned about him and cited him in too many occasions. I watched many of his interviews and teachings. When François Cheng talks, everybody listens. In all the interviews he has, audience can visibly see how the room calms down immediately. Sir Cheng has a small figure and soft-spoken manner, but when he talks, he is a giant divine that sends pure bliss of knowledge to the human kind.
Cinque Méditation sur la Beauté is Mr. Cheng’s classic works. The only Chinese-French member of the extremely privileged l’Académie Française, François Cheng discusses beauty through five chapters of debates. François Cheng began his illustration using his childhood experience around Mountain Lu during a turbulent time when the Japanese invaded China. Although the Chinese world was shattered by the invasion, Cheng however found beauty in the impossibility.
One attribute of beauty is duality: beauty and ugliness are two sides of the same palm, like Ying and Yang. Individual beauty is also a part of the wholesome beauty that is of origin to the Nature, the Source, the divinity, or however one may want to describe the embryo power of the universe. There are large variations among individual beauty, and such difference of independent beauty unit makes the compact “whole” beauty more beautiful.
Five meditations not only define beauty, but also evolve souls. Because François Cheng masters vocabulary and syntax of words, reading his work has been an experience of beauty itself. I often read one sentence of him multiple times, as I am just in awe of how re-arranged plains words can become so beautiful? If there are a few things that make the world better, piano is one of them, and François Cheng’s book is the other.
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