Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

A few thoughts penned whilst reading the book.

What started as a book full of mesmeric facts and a long journey through humanity’s past, has sorely turned into a sordid read, replete with sweeping comments, crass generalizations and ill founded, cynical statements that put humanity as a whole on a pedestal of chance occurring’s paired with intolerable cruelty and greed. The subservience of mankind to wheat crop and even writing seems interesting but not without its faults. The tone of despondency is prevalent which makes the highest accolades of human achievement seems infantile, needless and a product of ravages.

On the topic of religion, the author starts off by defining it as a great unifying force of humankind. Yet, the next few pages are solely dedicated not just to emergence of varying religions but also to religions being source of wars and discontent, how religions innately are borrowers from each other. The unifying aspect is barely highlighted. The book also seems ridiculously hostile to optimistic ideas of religion, experience and ideas that have prevailed throughout history. It takes a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity’s traces on this earth.

At one point, the book has taken a turn for the worst. The author is basically asserting that if Holy Books or God did not clearly state that E=mc2 to assist humans, then religions are just a product of human brain, a mass propaganda of control & unification.

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions. Ordinary mortals gained knowledge by delving into these ancient texts and traditions and understanding them properly. It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe – a secret that might yet be discovered by flesh-and-blood creatures.

The author keeps instigating the absurd notion of pitting religion against science. Why is it inconceivable that the two can be and are reconciled? Why is it unfathomable that religion fanned curiosity and discovery in the realm of knowledge too? Why disregard the importance of religion in humanity’s quest for progress and self-improvement?

This book slowly became more and more insufferable.

“In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.”

Really? Only an uninformed, pseudo-intellectual could concoct this type of, excuse my language, bullshit.

In the following statement why not also include the religious dimension? Religion at its peak pushed discovery to its zenith too.

Hence in order to comprehend how humankind has reached Alamogordo and the moon– rather than any number of alternative destinations– it is not enough to survey the achievements of physicists, biologists and sociologists. We have to take into account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others.

Next came sweeping generalizations, with no logic behind them.

When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed ‘before’ the Big Bang.

Lastly, the grand delusions of the author, akin to much of his other observations.

Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike.

Some interesting highlights

  • Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences (experience need not be equated with consumerism and materialism.)
  • Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace
  • Among all the world’s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark
  • Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.
  • We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations
  • Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness
  • While agricultural space shrank, agricultural time expanded. Foragers usually didn’t waste much time thinking about next week or next month. Farmers sailed in their imagination years and decades into the future
  • Although there was enough food for today, next week, and even next month, they had to worry about next year and the year after that
  • The mere fact that one can feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflicts, and how to act in times of drought or war. And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if the storehouses are bulging
  • While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth
  • Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian
  • Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively
  • For example, today people believe in equality, so it’s fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans, which were originally working-class attire. In the Middle Ages people believed in class divisions, so no young nobleman would have worn a peasant’s smock. Back then, to be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ was a rare privilege reserved for the nobility, and often purchased with blood. Today all polite correspondence, regardless of the recipient, begins with ‘Dear Sir or Madam
  • Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order
  • An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs
  • But human teenagers have no genes for football. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about football. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game
  • Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master
  • Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
  • Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera).
  • Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
  • The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.
  • Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving.
  • Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
  • One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was our original niche. Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones.
  • Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
  • Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.
  • Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.
  • The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.
  • The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.
  • There’s hardly an activity, a belief, or even an emotion that is not mediated by objects of our own devising.
  • The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.
  • Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.
  • ‘You do not waste good iron to make nails,’ went a common Chinese saying, meaning that really talented people join the civil bureaucracy, not the army.
  • Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called culture’.
  • Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality.
  • money isn’t a material reality– it is a psychological construct.
  • Still, it was somewhat easier to build trust in barley as the first type of money, because barley has an inherent biological value. Humans can eat it. On the other hand, it was difficult to store and transport barley. The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport.
  • Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
  • Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it.
  • It is therefore impossible to understand the unification of humankind as a purely economic process.
  • The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples (such as the Numantians), forging out of them new and much larger groups.
  • A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.
  • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.
  • The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.
  • So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order.
  • Every point in history is a crossroads. A single travelled road leads from the past to the present, but myriad paths fork off into the future.
  • It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.
  • The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.
  • Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution. Once this relationship was established, however, it quickly transformed the world.
  • Science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.
  • In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
  • For modern Europeans, building an empire was a scientific project, while setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project.
  • The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices– the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats.
  • Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.
  • This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.
  • In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions– and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.
  • The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.
  • Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe.
  • Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists are other examples. They, too, are defined above all by what they consume. It is the keystone of their identity. A German vegetarian might well prefer to marry a French vegetarian than a German carnivore.
  • So maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to First World standards.
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Normal People by Sally Rooney

★★★★★ (5/5)

Very rarely you come across prose that engulfs the senses wholly, in a way that you find it near impossible to pull yourself away from the pages on which the words thread across. You are engrossed in the characters, their mesmeric designs, yet worry about the passage of time that goes by you, the Reader. For you shall soon have finished this story, perhaps even moved on to the next one, whilst this prose would remain perennially so, stillsame forever. Have you moved on? Could you ever?

Normal People is one such novel, of immense vivacity, of great push. It gravitates the reader towards their own inner self, towards words unsaid, towards meanings untold. It is poetry in motion, the poetry of life in all its chaos and sensibility.

And the sea-green book cover is exceptionally simple and beautiful. A sardine tin: peopled, huddled, enmeshed.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

About Connell

  • It feels practically scandalous to be lingering here in solitude. He feels as if everyone around him is disturbed by his presence, and trying not to stare.
  • He understands now that his classmates are not like him. It’s easy for them to have opinions, and to express them with confidence. They don’t worry about appearing ignorant or conceited. They are not stupid people, but they’re not so much smarter than him either. They just move through the world in a different way, and he’ll probably never really understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.
  • If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced.
  • but it only gave his loneliness a new stubborn quality, like it was planted down inside him and impossible to kill.
  • For him the scholarship is a gigantic material fact, like a vast cruise ship that has sailed into view out of nowhere.
  • Things happened to him, like the crying fits, the panic attacks, but they seemed to descend on him from outside, rather than emanating from somewhere inside himself. Internally he felt nothing. He was like a freezer item that had thawed too quickly on the outside and was melting everywhere, while the inside was still frozen solid.
  • He had read the writer’s collection and found it uneven, but sensitive in places, perceptive. Now, he thought, even that effect was spoiled by seeing the writer in this environment, hemmed off from anything spontaneous, reciting aloud from his own book to an audience who’d already read it. The stiffness of this performance made the observations in the book seem false, separating the writer from the people he wrote about, as if he’d observed them only for the benefit of talking about them
  • Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.
  • It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.

About Marianne

  • and after he left she would feel high, nervous, at once energetic and terribly drained.
  • He tells her that she’s beautiful. She has never heard that before, though she has sometimes privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person.
  • Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter’s frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth’, by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.
  • She knew that if she wanted to speak, everyone would probably turn around and listen out of sincere interest, and that made her happy too, although she had nothing at all to say.
  • For weeks now she has had this feeling, the feeling of moving around inside a protective film, floating like mercury.
  • The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quickly and then leaving her sick and shivery.
  • Could he really do the gruesome things he does to her and believe at the same time that he’s acting out of love? Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence? Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.
  • Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
  • It gives Marianne a window onto real happiness, though a window she cannot open herself or ever climb through.

Connell on Marianne

  • People resent that about her, and Connell thinks that’s why they tell the story, as a way of gawking at something they’re not allowed to see.
  • At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both.
  • For the privacy between himself and Marianne to be invaded by Peggy, or by another person, would destroy something inside him, a part of his selfhood, which doesn’t seem to have a name and which he has never tried to identify before.
  • Marianne is the only one who ever triggers these feelings in him, the strange dissociative feeling, like he’s drowning and time doesn’t exist properly anymore.
  • He couldn’t explain aloud what he finds so absorbing about his emails to Marianne, but he doesn’t feel that it’s trivial. The experience of writing them feels like an expression of a broader and more fundamental principle, something in his identity, or something even more abstract, to do with life itself.
  • He senses a certain receptivity in her expression, like she’s gathering information about his feelings, something they have learned to do to each other over a long time, like speaking a private language.
  • Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world.
  • What would it even mean, to be nothing to her? He could avoid her, but as soon as he saw her again, even if they only glanced at one another outside a lecture hall, the glance could not contain nothing. He could never really want it to.

Marianne on Connell

  • It’s not like this with other people, she says. Yeah, he says. I know. She senses there are things he isn’t saying to her.
  • She feels her shoulder muscles relaxing, like their solitude is a narcotic.
  • She loves to be alone with him like this. It makes her life seem very manageable suddenly.
  • In a series of emails they exchanged recently about their own friendship, Marianne expressed her feelings about Connell mainly in terms of her sustained interest in his opinions and beliefs, the curiosity she feels about his life, and her instinct to survey his thoughts whenever she feels conflicted about anything. He expressed himself more in terms of identification, his sense of rooting for her and suffering with her when she suffers, his ability to perceive and sympathise with her motivations.
  • He probably won’t come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her.
  • They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another. You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • It expresses everything all at once, which is the same as expressing nothing.
  • and the silence in the kitchen was loud in her ears, like the white noise of rushing water.
  • Their life in Carricklea, which they had imbued with such drama and significance, just ended like that with no conclusion, and it would never be picked back up again, never in the same way.
  • and asks Joanna if she finds it strange, to be paid for her hours at work – to exchange, in other words, blocks of her extremely limited time on this earth for the human invention known as money.
  • Back outside the cafe now, the sunlight is so strong it crunches all the colours up and makes them sting.
  • The place had that strange unfurnished cleanliness that lonely houses sometimes have. She seemed like a person with no hobbies: no bookcases, no musical instruments.
  • That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.
  • The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.
  • They continued eating then, as if they were acting out an argument in which both sides were equally compelling, and they had chosen their positions more or less at random, only in order to have the discussion out.
  • Their feelings were suppressed so carefully in everyday life, forced into smaller and smaller spaces, until seemingly minor events took on insane and frightening significance.
  • You lean in expecting resistance, and everything just falls away in front of you.

Pastoralia by George Saunders

★★★★★ (5/5)

Terrifically insane, wildly amusing, profoundly beautiful. What an array of short stories this one is. My third book by the maestro George Saunders just proves the ingenuity and brilliance of his maddening brain. Where else can one find consumerism echoed in primitive caves? And severed human connections and human strife intertwined with zombies? And loneliness which cuts through one’s existence perennially? And that one decisive moment which either ends in life or death?

In all its brittle, brutal glory, Saunders gives a voice to those who live on the fringes of humanity, beings who pass in and out of worldly moments. As readers we end up with empathy, with contempt, with disgust and love for the characters as they trudge down the path. As one critic put it correctly: Pastoralia is ‘like a literary take on American Beauty’.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Pastoralia

★★★★ (4/5)

  • And also, and yet, I thank you guys, who were my precursors, right? Is that the spirit? Is that your point? You weren’t ignorant on purpose? You were doing the best you could? Just like I am?
  • Who puts the cash in your hand to buy that food in your face? We do. What do we want of you? We want you to tell the truth. That’s it. That is all.
  • And why? Is it greed? Don’t make us laugh. It is not. If we make money, we can grow, if we can grow, we can expand, if we can expand, we can continue to employ you, but if we shrink, if we shrink or stay the same, woe to you, we would not be vital. And so help us help you, by not whining about your Disposal Debit, and if you don’t like how much it costs, try eating less
  • Truth is that thing which makes what we want to happen happen.
  • Truth is that thing which empowers us to do even better than we are already doing, which by the way is fine, we are doing fine, truth is the wind in our sails that blows only for us

Winky

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • “Hey, You, come on over!” shouted a girl across the stage, labeled “Inner Peace.” “I bet you’ve been looking for me your whole life!”
  • Vicki had a face that looked as if it had been smashed against a steering wheel in a crash and then carefully reworked until it somewhat resembled her previous face. Several parallel curved indentations ran from temple to chin
  • The world was a story Christ was telling her
  • The hood said what he said because one look at Dad told him he could. Dad, with his hunched shoulders and his constant blinking, just took Ma’s arm and mumbled to the hood that a comment like that did more damage to the insulter than to the insulted, etc. etc. blah blah blah. Then the hood made a sound like a cow, at Ma, and Neil, who was nine, tried to break away and take a swing at the hood but Ma had his hand and wouldn’t turn him loose and secretly he was glad, because he was scared, and then was ashamed at the relief he felt on entering the dark church
  • and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage

Sea Oak

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • What a stressful workplace. The minute your Cute Rating drops you’re a goner. Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker
  • She never got married, because Grandpa needed her to keep house after Grandma died. Then he died and left all his money to a woman none of us had ever heard of, and Aunt Bernie started in at DrugTown. But she’s not bitter. Sometimes she’s so nonbitter it gets on my nerves
  • He does phone polls. This month he’s asking divorced women how often they backslide and sleep with their exes. He gets ten bucks for every completed poll
  • I step over and take a closer look. There are staples where Aunt Bernie’s spine would be. Down at the foot there’s some writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B. “No freaking way,” says Jade. “Work your whole life and end up in a Mayflower box? I doubt it.”
  • Anybody can do anything. But first they gotta try
  • and we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could
  • Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive

The End of Firpo in the World

★★★★ (4/5)

  • and ha ha ha that had been a laugh, that had been so funny he had almost gone around one two three four and smashed their cranial cavities with his off-brand gym shoes
  • And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special
  • and as the white car struck him the boy and the bike flew together in a high comic arc across the street and struck the oak on the opposite side with such violence that the bike wrapped around the tree and the boy flew back into the street.

The Barber’s Unhappiness

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • He nearly got tears in his eyes thinking of how she’d get tears in her eyes as he went down on one knee to pop the question
  • “They decided to speed is what you did,” said the instructor sadly, with pity for both the armless child and the otherwise good people who on that fateful day had decided to speed, and now sat before him, lives ruined.
  • and the slightly shamed look on her face made him forgive her completely for the disgusting thing she’d been about to do out of her deep deep love for him
  • Facially she was very possibly the prettiest girl here. Was she?
  • As he looked at Sylvia standing in that bright sunlit meadow in the picture, her head thrown back, joyfully laughing, her crow’s-feet so very pronounced, a spontaneous image had sprung into his mind of her coming wide-hipped toward him while holding a baby, and suddenly he’d been deeply disappointed in himself for doing it with someone so unusual looking, and to ensure that he didn’t make matters worse by inadvertently doing it with her a second time, he’d sort of never called her again, and had even switched banks
  • and she’d said she thought she loved him, which was nice, except wow she was tall. You could only hold hands with her for so long before your back started to hurt. He remembered his back sort of hurting in the mist
  • Did she notice how neat the shop was? How professional? Or did she notice that four of the chairs were of one type and the fifth was totally different?

The Falls

★★★★ (4/5)

  • So humility was the thing, he thought, arranging his face into what he thought would pass for the expression of a man thinking fondly of his own youth, a face devoid of wackiness or perversion, humility was the thing.
  • Cummings bobbed past the restored gristmill, pleased at having so decisively snubbed Morse, a smug member of the power elite in this conspiratorial Village, one of the league of oppressive oppressors who wouldn’t know the lot of the struggling artist if the lot of the struggling artist came up with great and beleaguered dignity and bit him on the polyester ass
  • Time made wastrels of us all, did it not, with its gaunt cheeks and its tombly reverberations and its admonishing glances with bony fingers
  • Boy oh boy, could life be a torture. Could life ever force a fellow into a strange, dark place from which he found himself doing graceless, unforgivable things like casting aspersions on his beloved firstborn
  • This was certainly not positive thinking. This was certainly an example of predestining failure via negativity
  • He was bad, that was for sure. There wasn’t an earnest bone in his body. Other people were simpler and looked at the world with clearer eyes, but he was self-absorbed and insincere and mucked everything up, and he hoped this wasn’t one more thing he was destined to muck up

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

★★★★ (4/5)

Some thoughts penned whilst reading the book.

History books must be tasted with a pinch of doubt and never be swallowed wholly, for there is always space for miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinterpretation. That being said, “Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan is a tremendous story woven out of historical facts and nuggets of information that would quite possibly blow the readers’ mind. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that it is an unbiased account since slight prejudice is evident here and there. However, it is not just an informative but entertaining read.

It has been a remarkable journey into the rich and tumultuous past of two continents – Asia and Europe. The cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which heralded change was one of my favourite parts to read. Most mind-boggling one was that which concerned the arrival of Mongols.

The rumbling that could be heard from the east was not Prester John, his son ‘King David’ or a Christian army marching to the aid of their brethren. It was the noise preceding the arrival of something altogether different. What was heading towards the Crusaders – and towards Europe – was not the road to heaven, but a path that seemed to lead straight to hell. Galloping along it were the Mongols.

I also noticed how the incessant mention of brewing apocalypse toned down considerably once we entered the 19th Century, with the dawn of British Empire.

However I do have a slight contention with the title of the book which instead of Silk Roads should’ve been something along the lines of “The Changing Centre of Gravity and Power” since much of the book deals with power shuffles across the two continents, rather than the Asian-centric implication of Silk Road as generally perceived.

What we are witnessing, however, are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia.

Moreover, why is it that whenever it comes to discussing the role of religions as pivotal pillar that changed course of history, of mankind, authors tend to adopt a more sarcastic tone. It is no mere coincidence that in this book as well as in “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, discussion of religion is done through a myopic lens, wording and sentences structured so as to border on the extreme. Heavy words like “notoriously”, “contradictory” teeter on the edges of ridicule. The tone seems that of a man scoffing at the importance of cosmological beliefs.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Historical Facts

  • Militarism, fearlessness and the love of glory were carefully cultivated as the key characteristics of an ambitious city whose reach was stretching forever further.
  • What made empires great were large numbers of cities, producing taxable revenues; what made them culturally spectacular were artisans and craftsmen who developed new ideas when wealthy patrons competed with each other for their services and rewarded them for their skills.
  • Commerce opened the door for faith to flow through.
  • In 635, missionaries in China were able to convince the Emperor to withdraw opposition to the faith and to recognise it as a legitimate religion whose message not only did not compromise imperial identity but potentially enforced it.
  • The golden age of European art – of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century, and then of artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian – owed much to their ability to use colours drawn from pigments that were part of the extension of contacts with Asia on the one hand and rising levels of disposable wealth to pay for them on the other.
  • Although Europeans might have thought they were discovering primitive civilisations and that this was why they could dominate them, the truth was that it was the relentless advances in weapons, warfare and tactics that laid the basis for the success of the west.
  • As prices rose in London, sparking protests at home, it seemed obvious to Marx that Britain’s imperialist policies were being dictated by a small elite and came at the expense of the masses.
  • The Persians, and others who were watching, saw a different moral in the story. The lesson was that, for all the bluster, the west’s bargaining position was a weak one. Those with the resources could ultimately force the hand of those who held the concession, and make them come to the table. The west could complain as bitterly as it liked, but it turned out that possession truly was nine-tenths of the law. This became one of the key themes of the second half of the twentieth century. New connections were rising that straddled the spine of Asia. A web was being spun not of towns and oases but of pipelines that linked oilwells to the Persian Gulf and, by the 1930s, to the Mediterranean.
  • What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region.

Nature of Religions in Shaping World History

  • To the modern eye, Christianity and Islam seem to be diametrically opposed, but in the early years of their coexistence relations were not so much pacific as warmly encouraging. And if anything, the relationship between Islam and Judaism was even more striking for its mutual compatibility.
  • The Crusade might be best remembered as a war of religion, but it was also a springboard for accruing serious wealth and power.
  • Merchants could be assured of security wherever they went, regardless of their faith, and regardless of whether there was peace or war.
  • Pope Urban II had stated that those taking the cross and joining the expedition to the Holy City would receive absolution from their sins. This evolved during the course of the campaign, when the idea developed that those who fell in battle against the infidel should be considered to be on a path to salvation. Journeying east was a journey in this life and the way to reach paradise in the next.
  • Tolerance was a staple feature of a society that was self-assured and confident of its own identity – which was more than could be said for the Christian world where bigotry and religious fundamentalism were rapidly becoming defining features.
  • ‘These Moors are unchangeable in their wills,’ the audience is told at one point – a reference to the belief that Muslims were trustworthy and resolute when it came to making promises and agreeing treaties, and were therefore reliable allies.18 Indeed, the Elizabethan era saw the emergence of Persia too as a common, and positive, cultural reference point in English literature.
  • In Europe, religious posturing counted for everything as Catholics and Protestants fought ferociously with each other; beyond, it could be conveniently left to one side.
  • Islamic societies generally distributed wealth more evenly than their Christian counterparts, largely thanks to very detailed instructions set out in the Qurān about legacies – including principles that were positively enlightened by the standards of the day when it came to the share women could and should expect from the estates of their father or husband. A Muslim woman could expect to be much better looked after than her European peer; but this came at the expense of allowing large-scale wealth to remain within the same family for a long period of time. This in turn meant that the gap between rich and poor was never as acute as it became in Europe because money was redistributed and recirculated more widely. These values to some extent inhibited growth: as a general rule, teaching and stipulations about legacies meant that families found it hard to accumulate capital over successive generations because inheritance was progressive and egalitarian; in Europe, primogeniture concentrated resources in the hands of one child, and paved the way for great fortunes to be built up.

Interesting Nuggets

  • there were alternative ways of looking at history – ones that did not involve looking at the past from the perspective of the winners of recent history.
  • The Huns scarred the cheeks of infant boys when they were born in order to prevent facial hair growing later in life, while they spent so long on horseback that their bodies were grotesquely deformed;
  • Such was the quantity of merchandise flowing into the ports of the Persian Gulf that professional divers were employed to salvage jetsam around the harbours, discarded or fallen from cargo ships.
  • This fuelled economic growth back in Italy, where such great riches were being generated in Pisa in the late eleventh century that the bishop and citizens imposed limits on the height of towers built by nobles keen to show off their wealth.
  • Blanket images of the Mongols as barbaric destroyers are wide of the mark, and represent the misleading legacies of the histories written later which emphasised ruin and devastation above all else. This slanted view of the past provides a notable lesson in how useful it is for leaders who have a view to posterity to patronise historians who write sympathetically of their age of empire – something the Mongols conspicuously failed to do.
  • But in the final analysis it had become clear from experience that while capturing and holding Jerusalem was wonderful in theory, in practice it was difficult, expensive and dangerous.
  • The empowerment of the peasantry, of labourers and of women was matched by a weakening of the propertied classes, as landlords were forced into accepting lower rents for their holdings – deciding it was better to receive some revenue than nothing at all. Lower rents, fewer obligations and longer leases all had the effect of tilting power and benefits towards the peasantry and urban tenants.
  • The transformations triggered by the Black Death laid foundations that were to prove crucial for the long-term rise of north-western Europe.
  • Ideas, goods and people began to move further and more quickly than at any time in human history – and in greater numbers too.
  • Only a European author could have concluded that the natural state of man was to be in a constant state of violence; and only a European author would have been right.
  • It was inhabited by Britons – whose name, speculated one author not long afterwards, came from the Latin brutus, that is, irrational or stupid.
  • Revolution in France in 1789 had produced similar results to the Black Death, with large-scale suffering giving way to a new age of determination and resurgence.
  • In fact, and perversely, Hitler had been championing the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine for the best part of two decades. In the spring of 1938, he spoke in support of a policy of emigration of German Jews to the Middle East and the formation of a new state to be their home.

    Shocking passage from “The Silk Roads”. There is too much preserved in history than we are led to believe…

  • Indeed, in the late 1930s, a high-level mission, led by Adolf Eichmann, had even been sent to meet with Zionist agents in Palestine to discuss how an accommodation could be reached that would solve what was often called ‘the Jewish question’ once and for all. With considerable irony, Eichmann – who was later executed in Israel for crimes against humanity – found himself discussing how to boost emigration of Jews from Germany to Palestine, something which seemed in the interests both of the anti-Semitic Nazi leadership and of the leadership of the Jewish community in and around Jerusalem.
  • It seemed logical – and horrific: leading Jewish figures were actively proposing collaboration with the greatest anti-Semite of all time, negotiating with the perpetrators of the Holocaust hardly twelve months before genocide began.
  • The first step of the response to 9/11 was to line up the countries of the Silk Roads.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • For the vast majority of the population in antiquity, horizons were decidedly local – with trade and interaction between people being carried out over short distances. Nevertheless, the webs of communities wove into each other to create a world that was complex, where tastes and ideas were shaped by products, artistic principles and influences thousands of miles apart.
  • Who could believe that Rome, built up through the ages by the conquest of the world, had fallen, that the mother of nations had become their tomb?’
  • ‘How dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety,’ he said to those who were present, ‘leading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of vultures?’
  • Travelling round this region was to have one’s eyes opened. When he returned home, he ‘found the princes barbarous, the bishops bibulous, judges bribable, patrons unreliable, clients sycophants, promisers liars, friends envious and almost everybody full of ambition’. These views were formed from the sanguine recognition of the east’s sophistication compared to the cultural limitations in the Christian west.
  • The phlegmatically faithful were masters at being all things to all people.
  • a surge in the concentration of wealth in one part of the world meant there was a sharp rise in the demand for slaves from another. Wealth and bondage went hand in hand.
  • Even nature was being kind, according to the English poet Alice Meynell: the start of the summer of 1914 was idyllic, with a bumper harvest to look forward to; moon after moon was ‘heavenly sweet’ as ‘the silken harvest climbed the down’.
  • And so, like a nightmarish game of chess where all possible moves are bad ones, the world went to war.
  • The silence of the guns, perhaps, owed more to the reality that there was nothing left to fight for than to the foresight of a succession of supposedly brilliant peace-makers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, or to the wonders of an unwieldy international organisation of European states whose accounts have not been signed off by its own auditors for years.
  • In Afghanistan, a word was coined for the practice of seeking support from both superpowers: literally meaning ‘without sides’, bi-tarafi became a tenet of a foreign policy that sought to balance the contributions made by the USSR with those of the US.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

Admittedly, this book started off with an interesting premise. But gradually it became monotonous, so much so that it is now seeped with over-done, tawdry romance, predictable plot outcomes and nauseating character arches. This is what staple young adult fantasies are made of.

Having read the infinitely superior and masterfully crafted book “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir, Children of Blood and Bone wanes in comparison. The world building is extractive in the latter, by which I mean that setting only surfaces once the plot demands it. By the same measure, various settings come into play only when the character’s story dictates so.

Perhaps it’s this dullness that prompted me to take a long break from the book. I wasn’t able to finish it in one sitting. When I started re-reading it, albeit begrudgingly, the pace did not pick up. And the predictable romantic links became stale soon. I doubt I’ll be picking up the second installment of this series.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • “Zélie asked why we are here. It’s a valid question. We often talk of how you must fight, but we never talk about why.”
  • “I teach you to be warriors in the garden so you will never be gardeners in the war. I give you the strength to fight, but you all must learn the strength of restraint.”
  • The copper-skinned girl shakes with a fear so visceral it leaks into my skin.
  • Though I was too young for Mama to teach me the magic of death, I saw it unfold. It came in cold spirits and sharp arrows and twisting shadows, but never in dreams.
  • “You can’t enslave an entire people for the rebellion of a few.”
  • As it fades, I see the truth—in plain sight, yet hidden all along. We are all children of blood and bone. All instruments of vengeance and virtue. This truth holds me close, rocking me like a child in a mother’s arms. It binds me in its love as death swallows me into its grasp.