August Reading List 2020

One last blog post hurrah before school starts again in just a few days. This past month, I’ve been in a bit of a lingering existential crisis mood just with the extra free time to think now that my internship is over and realizing that I’m turning 21 very soon, I probably will only have 2 semesters of college left before I graduate, that I have to actively think about what company I could see myself working at long term or if I should ditch industry altogether and go to graduate school, etc. All this is to say that I think the books I chose to read this month somewhat reflect this mid-college crisis because I gravitated more towards books that could shed some light on how I can live a more stress free, purposeful life.

I’m almost certain there won’t be another blog post for another 4-5 months just because of the slightly ridiculous class schedule I’ve forced upon myself this semester, but know that I’ll still be busy mulling of these big life questions and hopefully will put together a mentally coherent blog post about them later in the year.

As usual, below is the list of books that I’ve enjoyed this month for which I won’t really provide easily Google-able summaries for, but instead share some of my favorite thought-provoking quotes.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

I honestly was just drawn to the cover design for this book when I first saw it and given that the research I’m doing right now is related to memory and forgetting, I thought what a fitting book to read. After finishing the book, I’m not the biggest fan of how it is structured. Personally, I found the sections specifically about memory competitions and learning memory improvement skills somewhat dry. But, I did love the philosophical train of thought throughout musing on the value and purpose of memory and overall it was still worth the read.

If you’re specifically interested in the theme within the book about how technology changes our memories and the potential repercussions this might have, the author, Joshua Foer, gave a really interesting talk and Q&A session in this Talks at Google video.

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives… In youth, we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous, and long-drawn-out. But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.

…interpreting the present in light of what we’ve learned in the past, and letting our previous experiences shape not only how we perceive our world, but also the moves we end up making in it. Too often we talk about our memories as if they were banks into which we deposit new information as it comes in, and from which we withdraw old information when we need it. But that metaphor doesn’t reflect the way our memories really work. Our memories are always with us, shaping and being shaped by the information flowing through our senses, in a continuous feedback loop. Everything we see, hear, and smell is inflected by all the things we’ve seen, heard, and smelled in the past. Who we are and what we do is fundamentally a function of what we remember.

Once upon a time, there was nothing to do with thoughts, except remember them. There was no alphabet to transcribe them in, no paper to set them down upon. Anything that had to be preserved, had to be preserved in memory… Today it often seems we remember very little… Our gadgets have eliminated the need to remember such things anymore. Forgotten phone numbers and birthdays represent minor erosions of our everyday memory, but they are part of a much larger story about how we’ve supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches, from the alphabet to the blackberry. These technologies of storing information outside our minds have helped our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed how we think and how we use our brains.

Until We Reckon by Danielle Serand

Thank you to Laura for recommending this book to me after I picked her brain for books from which I could learn more about restorative justice. If it wasn’t for her I probably would have never found this book otherwise.

With social media consistently highlighting the violence and injustices occurring in the world, especially in America, in what feels like a fundamentally flawed justice system, I felt compelled to learn more about what alternative solutions and justice system structuring may exist that would be an improvement on our current system and so I picked up this book by Danielle Serand to read and learn a bit more and it’s truly a great read if you’re looking to be more informed about the benefits that restorative justice could have over a retributive justice.

America has long had a love affair with punishment. With a few critical exceptions, at virtually every decision point in the criminal justice system, we choose the more punitive option over any available alternative…Some of the clearest and most devastating examples of this punitiveness in recent history lie in mandatory minimum sentence laws. These laws functionally remove judges’ discretion to act with mercy, to factor in complex circumstances or causes, to take into account a victim’s view when the person doesn’t favor a lengthy term of imprisonment, or to consider the impact on public safety. In setting these minimums, we etch a belief system into stone, formalizing our disinterest in the details of a particular case or the humanity of the people involved, our misplaced and outdated assumptions about what helps victims heal and be safe, our disregard for the context of a crime as a relevant factor in determining an appropriate consequence, our failure to understand prison as a tool with limitations that should be treated as such, and our assumption that people who cause certain harm are fundamentally the same as one another and essentially monstrous. We remove our ability not only to empathize, but to think, to act rationally, and to make decisions that prioritize healing, safety, and justice.

When it comes down to it, being punished requires only that people sustain the suffering imposed for their transgression. It is passive. All one has to do to be punished is not escape. It requires neither agency nor dignity, nor does it require work. It is undeniable that we as a country are tough on crime… But in essential ways, prison lets people off the hook. No one in prison is required to face the human impacts of what they have done, to come face to face with the people whose lives are changed as a result of their decisions, to own their responsibility for those decisions and the pain they have caused, and to do the extraordinarily hard work of answering for that pain and becoming someone who will not commit that harm again. While incarcerated, people are brutalized, but they are also systematically protected and excused from all of those human burdens. Prisons render the most important kinds of human reckoning nearly impossible… Forms of punishment that do not include the human reckoning of accountability and the human grappling of remorse rely exclusively on extrinsic motivation— a threat from outside. One of the effects of accountability is to help foster people’s intrinsic motivation, which manifests in part as remorse.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz

The Paradox of Choice was such a perfect book for me to read this month. If you know me, I’m almost always stressed about something thanks to my generally type A personality and wanting to maximize and take advantage of every opportunity and information I am privileged enough to have or acquire. I’ve definitely noticed I often stress about making decisions, about the outcomes of potential decisions, about decisions that have already been made, etc. and so this book was quite therapeutic in terms of validating that I’m not alone in this, but that I can also make a more conscious choice to avoid this self-induced stressful mindset. The book is also chock-full of psychology research study references that back up the advice and arguments it provides. Here’s also a great TED Talk by Barry Schwartz about the core idea in the book. Another talk from him addressing post-grad anxiety decision.

The first choice you must make is between the goal of choosing the absolute best and the goal of choosing something that is good enough. If you seek and accept only the best, you are a maximizer. Maximizers need to be assured that every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. Yet how can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible? The only way to know is to check out all the alternatives… As a decision strategy, maximizing creates a daunting task, which becomes all the more daunting as the number of options increases… The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. To satisfice is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better. A satisficer has criteria and standards. She searches until she finds an item that meets those standards, and at that point, she stops.… some might argue that my description of maximizers is actually a description of people who don’t truly understand what it means to “maximize.” A real maximizer would figure in the costs (in time and money and stress) of gathering and assessing information. An exhaustive search of the possibilities, which entails enormous “information costs,” is not the way to maximize one’s investment.

It’s hard to go through life regretting every decision you make because it might not have been the best possible decision. And it’s easy to see that if you experience regret on a regular basis, it will rob you of at least some of the satisfaction that your good decisions warrant. What is even worse is that you can actually experience regret in anticipation of making a decision. You imagine how you’ll feel if you discover that there was a better option available. And that leap of imagination may be all it takes to plunge you into a mire of uncertainty—even misery—over every looming decision. So we have to ask ourselves what counts when we assess the quality of a decision. Is it objective results or subjective experiences?

There’s another dimension to the modern concern for status, identified thirty years ago by economist Fred Hirsch. He wrote about goods that were inherently scarce or whose value depended in part on their scarcity. Parcels of land on the ocean cannot be increased. Spots in the entering class at Harvard cannot be expanded. Access to the very best medical facilities cannot be made more plentiful. Suburban housing can be made more plentiful, but only by putting houses closer together or building farther away from the city, thereby negating much that makes them desirable. Technological innovation may enable us to feed more and more people with an acre of land, but it won’t enable us to provide more and more people with an acre of land, near where they work, to live on. Hirsch suggested that the more affluent a society becomes, and the more basic material needs are met, the more people care about goods that are inherently scarce. And if you’re in competition for inherently scarce goods, “good enough” is never good enough; only the best—only maximization—will do.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

I recently fell into a vortex of minimalist videos on Youtube, and have slowly come to realize that minimalism, and it’s cousin essentialism, isn’t just about not hoarding clothes and not having a lot of monetary possessions. More broadly, it’s a mindset of learning to focus on what is truly important, not being weighed down by insignificant events, and learning to not sweat the small things once you identify what is truly important or essential to you.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential… The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless

The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live… Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning or will you look back at your one single life with twinges of regret… Remember this, whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for coming along this summer book reading journey with me! I honestly didn’t expect myself to keep up with this book reading plan for as long as I did, but making these blog posts definitely helped to keep me accountable. I honestly can’t even remember the last time I read so many books in such a short period of time and I for sure have never read so many nonfiction books as I have these past 4 months. During this quarantine summer, I’ve rediscovered my love of reading and honestly, my love of learning too. There’s just something so refreshing about reading a book and learning when there isn’t an assigned reading deadline or school assignment grade associated to it and it’s definitely something I plan to continue to do after I eventually leave my current structured college learning environment.