The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

★★★★★ (5/5)

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.

Sometimes a children’s classic is all you need to sit back and re-evaluate your adult life. It gives one a much needed break from everyday chaos, driving the Reader towards quiet contemplation of the inner self in context of the external world. The Phantom Tollbooth was an absolute delight to read for the very first time, that too as an adult. I doubt I would’ve been able to appreciate its weighty content as a child.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

The Road and the Journey

  • There are no wrong roads to anywhere.
  • Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.
  • The road, finally making up its mind, plummeted down, as if anxious to renew acquaintance with the sparkling blue stream that flowed below.
  • The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between

On Expectations

  • Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you’re going. Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations
  • Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens.
  • Every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not.

On Thinking and Perception

  • “The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.”
  • Each one looked very much like the other (except for the color, of course) and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  • “Well,” continued the watchdog impatiently, “since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking.”
  • “Come now, if you don’t have a reason, you must at least have an explanation or certainly an excuse,” interrupted the gateman.
  • “What a silly system.” The boy laughed. “Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.”

On Reality

  • It’s just as bad to live in a place where what you do see isn’t there as it is to live in one where what you don’t see is.
  • The more you want, the less you get, and the less you get, the more you have.
  • Everybody is so terribly sensitive about the things they know best.
  • For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing
  • Many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

On Learning

  • You often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.
  • It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.
  • From off on the right, his heavy bulbous body lurching dangerously on the spindly legs which barely supported him, came the Overbearing Know-it-all, talking continuously. A dismal demon who was mostly mouth, he was ready at a moment’s notice to offer misinformation on any subject. And, while he often tumbled heavily, it was never he who was hurt, but, rather, the unfortunate person on whom he fell.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • A soft glow filled the air with the kind of light that made everything look sharp and clear and close enough to reach out and touch.
  • As if understanding his signal perfectly, a single piccolo played a single note and off in the east a solitary shaft of cool lemon light flicked across the sky.

 

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Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

“The algorithms know you better than you know yourself.”

The book was too monotonous, purely data-driven, and replete with unrelated examples. It’s just a collection of big data that didn’t really challenge my existing notions nor added any new ideas to my knowledge. Except of course the assertion that many stereotypes are true, and others are false.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On revealing our true selves on the Internet

  • Google was invented so that people could learn about the world, not so researchers could learn about people. But it turns out the trails we leave as we seek knowledge on the internet are tremendously revealing.

  • In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information. When and where they search for facts, quotes, jokes, places, persons, things, or help, it turns out, can tell us a lot more about what they really think, really desire, really fear, and really do than anyone might have guessed
  • Facebook data scientists have shown one exciting possibility. They can estimate a country’s Gross National Happiness every day. If people’s status messages tend to be positive, the country is assumed happy for the day. If they tend to be negative, the country is assumed sad for the day.
  • Google search data and other wellsprings of truth on the internet give us an unprecedented look into the darkest corners of the human psyche. This is at times, I admit, difficult to face. But it can also be empowering. We can use the data to fight the darkness. Collecting rich data on the world’s problems is the first step toward fixing them.

Racism and Searches

  • The discrimination black people regularly experience in the United States appears to be fueled more widely by explicit, if hidden, hostility.
  • Trump rode a wave of white nationalism. There is no evidence here that he created a wave of white nationalism.
  • Zuckerberg had learned an important secret: people can claim they’re furious, they can decry something as distasteful, and yet they’ll still click.

Interesting Nuggets

  • John Adams, in his 1799 State of the Union address, referred to “the United States in their treaties with his Britanic Majesty.” If my book were written in 1800, I would have said, “The United States are divided.” This little usage difference has long been a fascination for historians, since it suggests there was a point when America stopped thinking of itself as a collection of states and started thinking of itself as one nation.
  • Reisinger founded a company, Premise, which employs a group of workers in developing countries, armed with smartphones. The employees’ job? To take pictures of interesting goings-on that might have economic import.
  • These are just correlations, but they do suggest that growing up near big ideas is better than growing up with a big backyard.
  • Yet the goal of a great society is not only to leave fewer people behind; it is to help as many people as possible to really stand out. Perhaps this effort to zoom in on the places where hundreds of thousands of the most famous Americans were born can give us some initial strategies: encouraging immigration, subsidizing universities, and supporting the arts, among them.
  • A combination of curiosity, creativity, and data could dramatically improve our understanding of the world.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

★★★★ (4/5)

Reminiscent of Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air”, but I could relate with Pausch’s sentiments and sagacity of words more. I felt a particular sort of fragility between the lines, which was in contrast to Kalanithi’s somewhat clinical book – not that any comparison is merited. Perhaps it is because Randy Pausch was a professor at heart and this memoir is replete with analogies and philosophies of life.

Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Sage Advice

  • We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.
  • When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a bad place to be.
  • The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.
  • Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity. – Seneca
  • Somehow, with the passage of time, and the deadlines that life imposes, surrendering became the right thing to do.
  • “It took a long time, but I’ve finally figured it out. When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, it’s really simple. Just ignore everything they say and only pay attention to what they do.”
  • Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
  • “Go out and do for others what somebody did for you.”
  • A good apology is like an antibiotic; a bad apology is like rubbing salt in the wound.

Nuggets to Ponder Upon

  • Whatever my accomplishments, all of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child…and in the ways I had managed to fulfill almost all of them. My uniqueness, I realized, came in the specifics of all the dreams—from incredibly meaningful to decidedly quirky—that defined my forty-six years of life.
  • We didn’t buy much. But we thought about everything. That’s because my dad had this infectious inquisitiveness about current events, history, our lives.
  • Brooks Law “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”
  • I watched Dr. Wolff use semantics to phrase whatever he could in a positive light. When we asked, “How long before I die?” he answered, “You probably have three to six months of good health.” That reminded me of my time at Disney. Ask Disney World workers: “What time does the park close?” They’re supposed to answer: “The park is open until 8 p.m.”
  • One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose.
  • I reveled in being Uncle Randy, the guy who showed up in their lives every month or so to help them look at their world from strange new angles.
  • In the end, educators best serve students by helping them be more self-reflective.
  • It makes no sense to talk about rights without also talking about responsibilities.
  • Depending on a child’s age and sense of self, an offhand comment from Mom or Dad can feel like a shove from a bulldozer.
  • Patients get to focus on themselves. They’re the objects of adulation and sympathy. Caregivers do the heavy lifting, with little time to deal with their own pain and grief.

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

★★★★★ (5/5)

This is an engrossing psychological thriller where each character is highly flawed, incorrigible, and as culpable of heinous acts as the other. Alcoholism, infidelity, self-delusions, misplaced rage and pretensions are just some of the issues these characters are embroiled in. I particularly liked how Paula Hawkins employed the tool of first-person and unreliable narrator over and over to bring about mystery and intrigue to an already convoluted plot, which is both crass and terrifying.  None of the characters (including baby Evie at times who has almost no direct bearing to the story) are likeable. They harbor evils of lust, jealousy, falsehoods and troubling secrets. There is no savior complex in the novel, which plagues many thrillers which makes it all the more engaging.

The reader teeters on the edge, sometimes being blind-sided by a new development, and at other times being deliberately led on a false trail. An overall gripping read. Highly recommended!

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.
  • His strength, that protectiveness he radiates, it doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’s strong in other ways; she makes intellectual leaps that leave him open-mouthed in admiration.
  • I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it –there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that, or look around for something to distract you.
  • What if the thing I’m looking for can never be found? What if it just isn’t possible?
  • Hypnosis is not generally useful in retrieving hours lost to blackout because, as my previous reading suggested, we do not make memories during blackout. There is nothing to remember. It is, will always be, a black hole in my timeline.
  • The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mould yourself through the gaps.
  • The only time I feel like me is on those secret, febrile afternoons like yesterday, when I come alive in all that heat and half-light.
  • Drunk Rachel sees no consequences, she is either excessively expansive and optimistic or wrapped up in hate. She has no past, no future. She exists purely in the moment.
  • I’m trapped somewhere, and I know that someone’s coming, and there’s a way out, I know there is, I know that I saw it before, only I can’t find my way back to it, and when he does get me, I can’t scream.
  • It must take the most incredible self-control, that stillness, that passivity; it must be exhausting.
  • I couldn’t bear to have other images in my head, yet more memories that I can’t trust, memories that merge and morph and shift, fooling me into believing that what is,
  • After a while I learned not to ask what I had done, or to argue when he volunteered the information, because I didn’t want to know the details, I didn’t want to hear the worst of it, the things I said and did when I was like that, filthy, stinking drunk.
  • Maybe the courage I need has nothing to do with telling the truth and everything to do with walking away.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

★★★★★ (5/5)

This autobiography has left a profound effect on me. A highly recommended read, not just to familiarize yourself with the injustices faced by the black man (or any minority) but to truly comprehend the limits of human endurance and valor in face of odds. An important takeaway from this towering autobiography has been that greatness lies not just in endurance, but also in the capacity to recognize, rethink and reevaluate life’s purpose. Only in admitting to a mistake and rectifying it does true virtuousness lie.

Malcolm X “delighted in twisting the white man’s tail, and in making Uncle Toms, compromisers, and accommodationists, thoroughly ashamed of the urbane and smiling hypocrisy we practice merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy and despise.”

Whilst reading this book, the cloud of ignorance which envelopes everyone to varying degrees, fizzles out. You become more mindful of innate prejudices, of deliberate hateful rhetoric propagated by the few to suppress masses. Malcolm X repeatedly preached to not fall for the white man’s patronizing actions, which appear helpful only on the surface but are rooted in systemic humiliation and scorn. Malcolm’s philosophy was founded upon revolution and not evolution in order to bring radical change, which depending on the circumstances, seems like the correct approach.

Keep letting the white man tell them how much “progress” they are making. They’ve heard it so much they’ve almost gotten brainwashed into believing it—or at least accepting it.

I also became cognizant of a few markers of black culture that are so prevalent in mainstream media. Terms like zoot suit, lindy-hopping and speakeasies were introduced to me in the context of Harlem lifestyle, which Malcolm X paints so vividly. Complementing this were numerous artisans and musicians mentioned in the book which aroused my curiosity and I was ushered into the world of jazz and blues music. Here are a few examples:

  • Johnny Hodges’ “Daydream” (He did not pay Malcolm X after shoeshine)
  • Eddie Vinson’s “My Big Brass Bed” (He joked about conk hair but was bald himself)
  • Sy Oliver’s “Yes Indeed” (Sy was Malcolm’s first brush with celebrities in Harlem)

This book can be broadly divided into four parts: Malcolm’s Childhood, Malcolm as a Harlemite, as a member of Nation of Islam, and lastly as an orthodox Muslim with subsequent political and racial awakening. Throughout the narration Malcolm owns up to his shortcomings with brutal sincerity (I doubt any other leader would do the same under limelight). He acknowledges the self-created pitfalls of his past life and does not brush them away casually. This audacity made Malcolm X who he was – unapologetic yet humble.

I thought at least that now, when all the white folks are safe from him at last, I could be honest with myself enough to lift my hat for one final salute to that brave, black, ironic gallantry, which was his style and hallmark, that shocking zing of fire-and-be-damned-to-you, so absolutely absent in every other Negro man I know, which brought him, too soon, to his death.

As a Muslim myself I couldn’t be more proud of his legacy as a fellow Muslim brother. He was assassinated just one year after accepting Orthodox Islam which goes to show that God Almighty has a plan for everyone, and a few chosen men of His are marked to do great work for justice and humanity. The harrowing tragedies faced by his progeny are a testament to Malcolm’s legacy too. And if I ever get to visit America, I would make it a point to pay my respects on his grave personally (James Baldwin is buried in the same Ferncliff Cemetery as Malcolm X).

(Side note: Malcolm X’s autobiography should be a compulsory read in academic, social and political circles.)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Racism & White Guilt

  • Whites have always hidden or justified all of the guilts they could by ridiculing or blaming Negroes.
  • The ring was the only place a Negro could whip a white man and not be lynched.
  • But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them.
  • “Red, I’m a Jew and you’re black,” he would say. “These Gentiles don’t like either one of us. If the Jew wasn’t smarter than the Gentile, he’d get treated worse than your people.”
  • He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don’t share his vainglorious self-opinion.
  • One funny thing—in all that hectic period, something quickly struck my notice: the Europeans never pressed the “hate” question. Only the American white man was so plagued and obsessed with being “hated.” He was so guilty, it was clear to me, of hating Negroes.
  • Its characteristic design permitted the white man to feel “noble” about throwing crumbs to the black man, instead of feeling guilty about the local community’s system of cruelly exploiting Negroes.
  • “Integration” is called “assimilation” if white ethnic groups alone are involved: it’s fought against tooth and nail by those who want their heritage preserved.
  • They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. First-aid stations were strategically located—even where to faint!
  • The very fact that millions, black and white, believed in this monumental farce is another example of how much this country goes in for the surface glossing over, the escape ruse, surfaces, instead of truly dealing with its deep-rooted problems.
  • The white man seems tone deaf to the total orchestration of humanity. Every day, his newspapers’ front pages show us the world that he has created.
  • And the first thing the American power structure doesn’t want any Negroes to start is thinking internationally.
  • it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.
  • “Conservatism” in America’s politics means “Let’s keep the niggers in their place.” And “liberalism” means “Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place—but tell them we’ll treat them a little better; let’s fool them more, with more promises.” With these choices, I felt that the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the “liberal” fox or the “conservative” wolf—because both of them would eat him.
  • I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences.

On Black Brotherhood

  • Many times since, I have thought about it, and what it really meant. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn’t know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system.
  • These whites were just mad for Negro “atmosphere,” especially some of the places which had what you might call Negro soul.
  • And we laughed about the scared little Chinese whose restaurant didn’t have a hand laid on it, because the rioters just about convulsed laughing when they saw the sign the Chinese had hastily stuck on his front door: “Me Colored Too.”
  • The black brother is so brainwashed that he may even be repelled when he first hears the truth. Reginald advised that the truth had to be dropped only a little bit at a time.
  • Here was, to my way of thinking, one of those “educated” Negroes who never had understood the true intent, or purpose, or application of education. Here was one of those stagnant educations, never used except for parading a lot of big words.
  • The black American today shows us the perfect parasite image—the black tick under the delusion that he is progressing because he rides on the udder of the fat, three-stomached cow that is white America.

On Religion

  • I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up.
  • The truth can be quickly received, or received at all, only by the sinner who knows and admits that he is guilty of having sinned much. Stated another way: only guilt admitted accepts truth.
  • You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is.
  • People seeing you as a Muslim saw you as a human being and they had a different look, different talk, everything.
  • Look what I’m handing them. I’m in the Muslim world, right at The Fountain. I’m handing them the American passport which signifies the exact opposite of what Islam stands for.
  • Each individual had a small prayer rug, and each man and wife, or large group, had a larger communal rug. These Muslims prayed on their rugs there in the compartment. Then they spread a tablecloth over the rug and ate, so the rug became the dining room. Removing the dishes and cloth, they sat on the rug—a living room. Then they curl up and sleep on the rug—a bedroom.
  • The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.
  • On the American racial level, we had to approach the black man’s struggle against the white man’s racism as a human problem, that we had to forget hypocritical politics and propaganda.

Wise Gems

  • So early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.
  • I told Reginald what I had learned: that in order to get something you had to look as though you already had something.
  • She knew from personal experience how crime existed only to the degree that the law cooperated with it.
  • In any organization, someone must be the boss. If it’s even just one person, you’ve got to be the boss of yourself.
  • I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.
  • And so many of the survivors whom I knew as tough hyenas and wolves of the streets in the old days now were so pitiful. They had known all the angles, but beneath that surface they were poor, ignorant, untrained black men; life had eased up on them and hyped them.
  • Raw, naked truth exchanged between the black man and the white man is what a whole lot more of is needed in this country—to clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies that this country’s very atmosphere has been filled with for four hundred years.
  • I had enough experience to know that in order to be a good organizer of anything which you expect to succeed—including yourself—you must almost mathematically analyze cold facts.
  • I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
  • I don’t go for non-violence if it also means a delayed solution. To me a delayed solution is a non-solution.
  • Mankind’s history has proved from one era to another that the true criterion of leadership is spiritual.
  • Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political language of the future. And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future.

On Childhood

  • My mother would boil a big pot of dandelion greens, and we would eat that. I remember that some small-minded neighbor put it out, and children would tease us, that we ate “fried grass.”
  • We children watched our anchor giving way. It was something terrible that you couldn’t get your hands on, yet you couldn’t get away from. It was a sensing that something bad was going to happen.

On Economics

  • “Credit is the first step into debt and back into slavery”
  • In another two years, I could have given them all lessons. But that night, I was mesmerized. This world was where I belonged. On that night I had started on my way to becoming a Harlemite. I was going to become one of the most depraved parasitical hustlers among New York’s eight million people—four million of whom work, and the other four million of whom live off them.
  • white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.
  • Britain’s superfluous royalty and nobility now exist by charging tourists to inspect the once baronial castles, and by selling memoirs, perfumes, autographs, titles, and even themselves.
  • The ghetto hustler is internally restrained by nothing. He has no religion, no concept of morality, no civic responsibility, no fear—nothing. To survive, he is out there constantly preying upon others, probing for any human weakness like a ferret. The ghetto hustler is forever frustrated, restless, and anxious for some “action.” Whatever he undertakes, he commits himself to it fully, absolutely.

On Women

  • But an educated woman, I suppose, can’t resist the temptation to correct an uneducated man. Every now and then, when she put those smooth words on him, he would grab her.
  • The woman who had brought me into the world, and nursed me, and advised me, and chastised me, and loved me, didn’t know me.
  • It showed me how any country’s moral strength, or its moral weakness, is quickly measurable by the street attire and attitude of its women—especially its young women. Wherever the spiritual values have been submerged, if not destroyed, by an emphasis upon the material things, invariably, the women reflect it.