dachau door man's search for meaning
Book Review, Non-Fiction, Recently Posted

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl

That which does not kill me, makes me stronger – Nietzsche

 

We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips. – Viktor Frankl

 

Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl

 

‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is a book that, at first, may put off a lay buyer by the title itself. “Another self help book”! is probably the thought that would cross the mind, as it did mine. Cynicism of commercialization of the problems of modern living runs deep. Each book that purports to provide a solution to the problem in career, marriage, relationships and to the general feeling of emptiness ends up providing pop stories that makes for light entertaining reading doubling up as inspirational stories – of how other people solved their issues (or how monks sold their Ferraris!). Psychology tells us that herd mentality works for humans. If I know that some other guy cracked the secret of happiness, the brain releases enough happy hormones to make us feel that we can do the same. So the temporary happiness. And then we forget what it was all about!

And that is precisely the reason that you need to pick up this book. And you may never again may need to pick up another book to ‘help yourself’. ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ written by holocaust survivor Viktor E Frankl is a book that I can safely add to the small list of books that I can say has changed the course of my life perceptibly.

Viktor Frankl is perhaps the one of the best persons to have written a book on the topic. He was a Holocaust survivor. But that is only the part of the reason. There were thousands of survivors and not only of the Holocaust – of various Gulags and other extermination camps run by other regimes and countries. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was in the process of developing his theory of logotherapy – study of how people find meaning in life, before he was seized by the Nazis. In the concentration camps, in a situation that was unique to modern human experience, Frankl was able to become a dispassionate observer of the people around him. And of himself. And he observed and kept developing his theory.

And he discovered some startling discoveries about human behaviour that otherwise would have been denied to him had he been just given an university environment.

And it is these discoveries and observations that he has put into this slim book. Slim yes but I don't recall the last book that I have highlighted and made notes of so much. Right from the first page, you start feeling the power of the book. Power that can only come from the words written by a man who has seen hell and has, for the benefit of those who come later, was able to record how man behaves in hell. And why some men can come out of hell unbowed while most are annihilated.

Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into two parts. In the first part Frankl takes us through his experience in the concentration camps. Through his eyes we see the world that he had to survive. He notes the behaviour of people around him – of prisoners and of guards. And he notes some things that can be observed only in extreme situations. Hope, he realized was a cause for life. And of death. Frankl narrates how he saw fellow prisoners literally turn from healthy people to being a corpse within a couple of days. Just because they lost hope and therefore the will to live.

In the second part he expands upon his theory of logotherapy. And in the process gives a primer on how to live.

 

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. The more one forgets himself-by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love-the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.”

      is one of the first lines that I highlighted. Ah! good, no pop psychology, no mysticism, no universe is in you type of bullshit. And that's how ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ starts. Cutting through the bullshit. Viktor Frankl tells us the things as is. No sugar coating. An example. His wife, pregnant at the time the Nazis captured them, was kept separately in another camp. He was not to know till after the war that she was killed almost immediately after arrival at her camp. Yet he finds out one of the greatest revelations of logotherapy from this.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.

Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved

Viktor was able to pass some of his darkest moments by visualizing his wife and her smile and kept alive the love he felt for her. He drew strength from the hope that he would see her again. It is love, literally, that kept him alive

 

On finding out later that she had died, in the midst of his world crashing down a second time, Frankl did not sit down and die. For as he had learnt – even in the worst of time, life does not cease to have a meaning. As he was to tell his patients and students later on – the only thing that matters in the end is what response we choose to give.

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

So Viktor Frankl chose to choose life and find meaning in it.

He later posed a question to his students – to guess what his, Viktor Frankl’s meaning is life is.

One student got it right. Viktor Frankl’s meaning in life was to spread the message of his book

For as he wrote,

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."

No one except Viktor Frankl himself could do what he himself could do. Therefore he had meaning in his life.

This above statement may be the single most important lines that I have read. What different people have poured tones of ink over, Frankl sums up in a paragraph. For what can be more powerful and more empowering than the realization of our uniqueness? That no one can replace us and what we feel. That our memories and experiences are our own and own alone. No matter what the conditions.

 

And Frankl is nothing if not practical to the point of dispassionate stoicism

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

Suffering will happen. Period. We need to know that it is as much a part of existence as happiness. What matters is our response to it

There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one's work or to enjoy one's life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering

Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it

 

 

Meaning of life is not to be found in a particular episode or in a particular form of feeling or in the way we meditate. It is to be found by living and finding meaning outside of us – in someone or some work. Fulfillment and meaning is to be found in our actions an in the way we feel for others.

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.

This particular part above suddenly opened up a small fresh window for me as I read it. I felt the truth of the statement instinctively. I think our modern self help gurus may have got it dead wrong. Its not in ourselves that we can find meaning but in others and in our work that has some meaning to the outside world I think we were never wired to be isolated happy beings…

 

There is another beautiful thought that Frankl keeps coming back in the book. That of the fact that each moment we live is something that remains with us forever. Our past is the only tangible proof of our existence. All that we have felt, each moment that we have felt and lived and cried and laughed is something that is unique to us and is life’s greatest treasure to us

What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.

 

 

For me, Frankl tackles beautifully one of the most difficult question that I had. And makes it look simple. I, like so many, have often wondered about the question of meaning in a general way – as if there is supposed to be a general theory of meaning. A one meaning to explain it all. Frankl gives the answer while demolishing the whole notion of a grand theory

What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?"

I am yet to see a more uplifting advice on how to live a life with meaning!

 

Viktor Frankl author Man's search for meaning In truth, Man’s Search for Meaning cannot be reviewed nor explained in detail. It has to be experienced. Reading it once is surely not enough. Its life changing enough to be read at various times in life. But reading it once is enough to change the way we think about ourselves and the way we live in the world. And I think that reading this book will be a different experience for every one. Just as we are unique individuals, just so we would take unique experiences from the book.

In sum Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Since all three are unique to everyone at all times, then it follows, I guess that we will find different meaning in different times, uniquely.

Frankl offers readers who are searching for answers to life's dilemmas a critical mandate: he does not tell people what to do, but why they must do it. This is a small but crucial difference in the way we expect self help books to help us

 

In the end, all I can say is that not reading this book would have been a great loss to me. Its quite an unique book that is probably even more relevant in our times than earlier. A couple of quotes from the book that Frankl could as well be writing about this time

People have enough to live by but nothing to live for

Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy

Some things never change! Ah wait, I know Frank would have said to that – “Our reaction to the things can!”

 

Closing the post with a summation in Frankl’s own words. Who else to close it better?

 

Now let us turn to the question of meaning itself. To begin with, I would like to clarify that, in the first place, the logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life. Therefore, I will not be elaborating here on the meaning of one's life as a whole, although I do not deny that such a long-range meaning does exist. To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn't it the same with life? Doesn't the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn't this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual's knowledge and belief?

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Isaac Asimov
Book Review, Non-Fiction, Recently Posted, Science fiction

I Asimov written by Isaac Asimov

Asimov-Cover2 To fans of classical science fiction, Isaac Asimov holds a position of one of a trinity – along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Of course there have been many more talented writers in the golden age of science fiction who arguably should be a part of an extended trinity – Philip Dick, Harlan Elision, Fredrick Pohl come to mind immediately. But we like symbolism and simplicity, so three it remained.

But speak of science fiction today and Asimov rings the most bells than anybody else. Partly the reason is his prodigious output. He penned hundreds of books, articles, anthologies, science books for kids – his influence extended across all major science and science fiction during his time. As popular a science fiction writer as a contemporary science writer, he was and still is one of the most widely read author.

But his major appeal, according to me, is his engaging writing style. It is highly accessible and there is always a humour underlying his work. Asimov’s writing, according to his own admission, has been to bring science to a much wider audience. Conscious to steer away from typical science writing of his time, which usually assumed scientific literacy for the reader, Asimov adopted a highly readable form of science writing. And his science fiction also reads the same way. The concept of psychohistory and laws of robotics, in the hands of another, would have assumed a mystical aura. In Asimov’s style, the concepts became crystal clear and natural. In fact, the real world of robotics assumes the Asimov’s laws – another powerful indication of how science fiction actually creates reality!!

I became a fan of Asimov on reading his powerful short stories – “The Last Question” and “Nightfall” and it has been an insatiable passion ever since. So, I picked up “I, Asimov”, his autobiography, without hesitation.

And it is a rollicking ride. The first thing that strikes you as the first pages go by is the very different structure of the book. Usually autobiographies and biographies follow a linear chronological pattern.

“I, Asimov”, on the other hand is like a collection of short stories, each two to three pages long. Collected together, they are vignettes of Asimov’s thoughts and opinions on almost everything he had ever encountered – to his opinion of having kids, his contemporaries, his marriages, his work, his religious beliefs (or lack of it), his political beliefs and his own opinion of himself.

“I, Asimov” reads much like all his work – highly readable and accessible with sparkling wit. And for an autobiography, it is a surprising page-turner – the reader is never under pressure to remember dates or events but goes along with the story, the ‘story’ is Asimov’s life. It is only roughly chronological and by the end of the book, the reader easily forms a very fair idea of Asimov’s life.

Asimov weaves his life story beautifully within these short pieces. And what comes across in the pages is a man who is witty, loyal to his ideas, full of life and passion for his work. He also comes across as stubborn and cocksure and supremely self-confident. But he admits to these freely. Usually owning up to non-flattering parts of your own character leads to explanations or self-pity. Asimov does not fall in either pits. That is one of the most endearing part of the book.

He is also one who can be truly generous. He rates many writers, including Heinlein, to be much better writers than himself. He is surprised that many times he was awarded Hugos or Nebulas while much better writers were overlooked. This quality of generosity or self-critique is rare in anybody, more so in writers…

It is as if, in the last autobiography he wrote (he wrote two before), Asimov wants the reader and the world to know exactly who and how he was. He does not dress up his prejudices and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. He comes across as forthright and frank without ever resorting to taking himself seriously. Even when he talks about death, there is no morbid philosophy. Even though he had only a few years to live (in fact he did not live to see this book’s publication), the inevitability of his death is told in a faintly ironic and humorous tone – “I expected to die at sixty and then at sixty five and then to my surprise, I reached seventy – more than anyone ever reached in my family”

The taste that you take away from this book is of a man who is sparkling, witty and entirely sure of himself. It shows also a man who can be full of warmth towards some people and cold towards some other. Someone who did not care too much of societal niceties. A man who stuck to his ideals and his philosophy, inspite of everything he faced.

Pick up this book. This is an autobiography unlike any you may have read. If you haven't read Asimov yet, this book may actually be a good place to start – you will want to read him. If you have already read Asimov, you might realize why you enjoyed his work so much

 

Some quotes –

“Once, when a religionist denounced me in unmeasured terms, I sent him a card saying, "I am sure you believe that I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?”

“I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

“I am not a Zionist, then, because I don't believe in nations, and because Zionism merely sets up one more nation to trouble the world. It sets up one more nation to have "rights" and "demands" and "national security" and to feel it must guard itself against its neighbors. There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity. ”

“I have never, in all my life, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.”

“The age of the pulp magazine was the last in which youngsters, to get their primitive material, were forced to be literate.”

“Having reached 451 books as of now doesn't help the situation. If I were to be dying now, I would be murmuring, "Too bad! Only four hundred fifty-one." (Those would be my next-to-last words. The last ones will be: "I love you, Janet.") [They were. -Janet.]”

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Book Review, Classics, Non-Fiction

Age of Reason – Thomas Paine

 
 
220px-PaineAgeReason
 

Just finished reading Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason"

 
What can I say?
 
That a book written more than 200 years ago could find so much resonance today is something that is needs to be read to be believed
 
Thomas Paine was a man who was so far ahead of his time that he would be called far ahead of his time today!!
 
Thomas_Paine_(cropped) (1) The moral courage and the personal integrity that exemplified his entire life marks his written work. Age of Reason was a book that caused such an explosion in its time that it did two things – immortalized him for posterity and condemned him during his lifetime.
 
Yet at the end of his life, when he was dying a painful death, deserted by friends and shunned by people who had hailed him a hero once, he stuck to what he had believed in and displayed the same sense of sarcastic humour that he showed in his work. A life lived as written
 
Age of Reason is an all out attack on the system of organized religion – more specifically Christianity, this being the religion that Paine encountered in England, France and America, the places where he lived and fought all his life. Paine was a brilliant pamphleteer and so was used to laying out his ideas concisely and clearly without using any dense logic or arguments. He uses the same technique in his writings.
 
Reading this, even 200 years later, feels like a stirring call to arms. And the fact that a large part of this book was written and completed at a time when Thomas Paine was under the belief that he could be executed anytime makes you appreciate the book more…
 
There are two important aspects of the book that stands out – the material of the book and the way it is written
 
The material of the book is based on a simple premise – Organized religion is a sham at best and dangerous at worst. This is because the purpose of organized religion is to make us act contrary to our innermost feelings, filling our head with impossible and fantastic things that has no basis in reality. The only true religion is that of Deism and the true bible is Nature.
 
Because, as Paine explains so beautifully, God has anyway given us an abundance of miracles in everything around us, in existence itself. Why do we need foolish miracles or religion? This was the first time that material like this was published in a direct and plainly written attack, even though the thoughts on which Paine based his work had been around for some time – in the work of David Hume and Spinoza for example.
 
The book is divided into two parts – the first is a general discussion on religion and on Paine's personal beliefs. This is where he puts forward his most compelling and beautiful arguments for the religion of the mind and the heart. He explains what he feels and why he feels so. The second part deals directly with Christianity. Deals is a wrong word actually. Rips apart is perhaps more appropriate. Paine takes some of the implied and maybe even cherished beliefs of Christians and literally rips them to shred…
 
Which brings me to the fascinating way the book is written. He is attacking organized religion in open field, which at that time was immensely powerful and controlled almost every aspect of life. Yet, he never uses any circular arguments, does not hide behind any one else and or any other theory. His attacks are straight to the point and argued so logically and beautifully that the modern reader will still find the reasoning fascinating, no matter how many Richard Dawkins he may have read.
 
When he is attacking Christianity, he maintains his good quality acerbic humour to mock the beliefs and at the same time gives irrefutable proof of why he considers the beliefs to be wrong. He picks up different aspects of Christianity – the bible and its different books, the299283333_7316acf53f characters of Moses, Joshua, Jesus and the significant events on which Christianity is based – most importantly the resurrection of Jesus. This was written to make perfect sense to a complete layman on the street. And this it does brilliantly!!!
 
The style has a wonderful sense of a person who is simply trying to wake up the reader to things which seem painfully apparent once explained…
 
This is a book that I hope I will be revisiting many a times. The book that has inspired people from Mark Twain to Christopher Hitchens is not something that can be digested in one reading…
 
This a book that cannot be reviewed enough, Instead I will leave the reader of this post with some of the sentences in the book that are so powerful and beautiful that they need to be read again and again…
 
Quotes from “Age of Reason”…Read below…
 
 

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“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

 

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy”

 

“My own mind is my own church.”

 

“But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself”

 

“Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

 

“It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication—after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him”

 

“The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.”

 

“THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man”

 

“and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.”

 

“As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle followed as an occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind, the latter to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the legerdemain. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder.”

 

“Upon the whole, mystery, miracle, and prophecy are appendages that belong to fabulous and not to true religion. They are the means by which so many Lo, heres! and Lo, theres! have been spread about the world, and religion been made into a trade”

 

“It is certain that, in one point, all the nations of the earth and all religions agree—all believe in a God; the things in which they disagree, are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and, therefore, if ever a universal religion should prevail, it will not be by believing anything new, but in getting rid of redundancies”

 

“Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice”

 

“Divided love is never happy.for it is impossible to derive happiness from the company of those whom we deprive of happiness.”

 

“To be happy in old age, it is necessary that we accustom ourselves to objects that can accompany the mind all the way through life, and that we take the rest as good in their day. The mere man of pleasure is miserable in old age, and the mere drudge in business is but little better; whereas, natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and to admire the Creator, for the principles of science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin”

 

“for when we cease to have an object, we become like an invalid in a hospital waiting for death”

“Can we suppose it is consistent with the wisdom of the Almighty, to commit himself and his will to man upon such precarious means as these, or that it is consistent we should pin our faith upon such uncertainties? We cannot make, nor alter, nor even imitate so much as one blade of grass that he has made, and yet we can make or alter words of God as easily as words of man

 

“But all other arguments apart, the consciousness of existence is the only conceivable idea we can have of another life, and the continuance of that consciousness is immortality. The consciousness of existence, or the knowing that we exist, is not necessarily confined to the same form, nor to the same matter, even in this life”

 

“credulity, however, is not a crime, but it becomes criminal by resisting conviction.”

 

“but when it is said, as in the Testament, “If a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;” it is assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel.Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing”

“And is not the evidence that this creation holds out to our senses infinitely stronger than anything we can read in a book that any impostor might make and call the word of God? As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man’s conscience”

 

“Religion, by such means, becomes a thing of form, instead of fact—of notion, instead of principles; morality is banished to make room for an imaginary thing called faith”

 

“certain as I am, that when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”

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Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

Bandits written by Eric Hobsbawm

bandits This was a book that i wanted to read for a very long time but this is one book that is not easily available. I finally was able to get hold of a copy from the online site “Friends of Books”.

Hobsbawm literally pioneered the study of bandits as a social phenomenon. Bandits as a popular form of resistance. Bandits was first published in 1969 and the field has expanded greatly since then, with many theories (some complementary and some opposing) coming forth on the subject.

This book, however, remains a seminal one. And for that reason, this book is simply must read for anyone who is interested in this fascinating topic.

The book starts by explaining who and what a social bandit is. The earliest form of banditry is the example of the mythical Robin Hood (who in all probability did not exist as a single individual). The late examples include bandits like Salvatore Giuliano (whom Puzo immortalized in international popular culture in “The Sicialian”) and bandit turned revolutionaries like Pancho Villa.

Hobsbawn prepares the basis of the definition of bandits by describing the political, social and economic reasons for the rise of bandits and37457 why they still exist in some forms even to this day. He goes on to describe some forms of banditry that persisted for a long time in some countries (like Haiduks in the Balkans).

He describes the environment under which they flourished and gives explanations for the reasons why some bandits are eulogized and become legends, even in their own lifetime and why some other bandits are not (and the latter are not a part of his description of social bandits). He explains why the social bandit enjoyed extensive support in the rural and marginal areas even when they may not have actually lived upto the Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich to give to the poor.

Later he ties up the bandit phenomenon with revolutionary and independence movements in the countries and he explains the various relationships that bandits had with the nationalist movements. He brings in the role of women and their relationship to the bandits.

39-pancho-villa-mustache As I said it is a fascinating topic and it is an interesting book. But I was expecting and hoping for much more. From a purely academic point of view, the book is excellent since it brings forth its theories well. But from a reading point of view, it falls short of expectations.

To be an enjoyable read, you need more description of the bandits. You get the theory but you dont get to know the bandits. You dont quite get the smell of the world that they lived in. You dont get many examples for the different theories that are given to you. You cant quite relate to the bandits and you feel an itching want to do so. The author whets your appetite that much.

Another point is that the book is almost exclusively devoted to European or South American bandits. Eastern ones (from India or China) get only passing reference.

To be fair, the author concedes as such in the introduction. The author explains that he intends to give this book as a primer and the reader must read other books to get more meat.

So, read this book as a window to a world that is not easily accessible. But be ready to trawl the internet to delve deeper.

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shakespeare Bill Bryson
Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

Shakespeare written by Bill Bryson

bill_bryson_shakespeare Bill Bryson is the official Mr Know-it-all. And here he comes up with a book on Shakespeare, a man who generates as much controversy about himself as he does praise for his work…

Now, a book that tries to bring the Bard forward as a historical figure would suffer from a serious problem – the book cant be more than a few pages long!!! There is almost no authentic historical records of the man, save for a few fragmentary information – court records and such…

What the book does well is in bringing both humour and historical background to the theme. Bryson has a catchy style of writing and that helps the subject along as there is not much material to put flesh on the characters of the era.

We are introduced to the world that Shakespeare inhabited – a world of growing English imperialism, the golden age of Elizabeth and the golden age of English theatre but a world where life expectancy hovered around the mid-thirties, where plague was the scrouge that was all too common and the world in general was a place where you would sooner die of starvation than of any wars, which were all too frequent as well…

As Bryson notes wryly, the greatest achievement of Shakespeare wasshakespeare91 not that he wrote his plays but that he survived at all!!!

Great men are as much a product of their talents as much as they are of their times, usually even more so…Shakespeare born a hundred years earlier or later would have in all probability died an unknown death – previously due to lack of any avenues to show his talents, later due to the closure of all theatres owing a wave of fundamentalism (Puritanism). Shakespeare was indeed lucky…

In more ways than one, as we see. Many of the works of his contemporaries are now lost, men who were considered at par or greater in talent than Shakespeare in his time. His work was preserved by the diligent efforts of two men to whom history owes profound thanks.

We are taken on a tour of Shakespeares life, from his childhood to adulthood to his death. The problem is that much of its conjecture and not hard facts. Record keeping was a science that developed after the Bard’s days. We dont know how he really looked like (there are conflicting portraits), we dont know how he spent his days, what his likes and dislikes were, whom he really married, what his relationships were, his influence in his works, his views on the things around him – nothing to put a shape to him. We dont really even know in what orders his plays were written!!! We do know however that Shakespeare and his friends were terrific plagiarists!!!

globe With all that handicaps, its a wonder that Bryson is able to hold our attention for so long. Except for a brief part of the book, near the end part where the book drags under the weight of excessive details, the book is interesting. You get a feel of the world that produced the ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ and you get an idea what kind of a man Shakespeare might have been…

‘Romeo and Juliet’ was dismissed as too melodramatic in its time by some critics. History is kind to those whose work survive!!! Bryson also devotes time to talk about some of the fanatical researchers, thanks to whom we know what little we know of the Bard.

As for the controversies, Bryson is a believer and hence a defender of the faith. So dont expect an objective argument. That comes at the very end of the book and is not the central theme, so Bryson is obviously confident that the man existed in all his glory.

So, if you are not looking to get the meat of the controversy, and just looking to have a good tale told to you, a tale that reads like a historical mystery, then go for this book.

Its an enjoyable read…Bryson scores again!!!

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ascent of money niall ferguson
Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

The Ascent of Money written by Niall Ferguson

the_ascent_of_money-large The first thing that flashed through my mind as I started reading this was – this book has got extraordinary timing. Coming on the heels of one of the most severe market contraction seen since the Great Depression, this book aims to clear the air with a very interesting history lesson.

At a time when people are flummoxed by CDOs, swaps and other exotic financial products that seem to be beyond most of our understanding (which is why it hurt even more!!!), this book provides a background to how it all began – in other words, the evolution of the bank, the bond market, the equity and finally to the present system of high finance. From Mesopotamia to the republic nation states of Italy to present day Chimerica.

Evolution and innovation in finance has paved the way for the extraordinary abundance of goods we see around us and indeed without the advance in finance, civilization would not have progressed the way it has. That is the core message of the book.

We are taken on an adventure trip in history and see how importanfrench-revolution-2t events that shaped the world as it is today were influenced by changes in financial fortunes – among others, from the French revolution, to the American civil war, Dutch East Indies, East India company, Waterloo, America’s rise and the Great War (WWI).

Its a fascinating view since seldom do we consider finance to be an important factors in political developments of the past, preferring to look at cause and effect of events. We realize how finance (and financiers) act as a powerful background force and which we seldom get to appreciate as finance is considered by laymen to be esoteric at best and not a relevant force as worst.

This book aims both to give a historical understanding of how ancient  Mesopotamia is linked through millennia with the sub-prime crisis of the present century and to help us appreciate the central role that finance plays in our lives – paradoxically as with its rising importance in our lives, its understanding has stagnated among the public, with finance considered the domain of whiz kids.

As I said, the book is timely – a reminder that we disregard the understanding of finance at our own peril.

imgNiall Ferguson4But other than the message that the book aims to send out – this is a rollicking ride. Written with clarity and with the layman in mind, the book is fast paced, almost like a thriller, with events of past unfolding like picture flip-book, with the events shown in a different light than the usual history lessons. Of course, there are numerous other events that could have been covered but in order to remain focussed, the book takes care of some pivotal events.

I cannot imagine a more accessible book on finance in the market right now.

I cannot find a better way to end this review than by quoting the last words of the book itself –

“It is not the fault of the mirror if it reflects our blemishes as clearly as our beauty”

Finance, like the nuclear energy, depends on the wielder – a sub-prime crisis and the ability to buy your dream home are the two sides of the same balance sheet…

 

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ramanujan the man who knew infinity
Book Review, Non-Fiction

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan written by Robert Kanigel

9780349104522 One of the most engrossing biographies that I have read. Not only is it a feat of writing because of the eclectic nature of the subject matter – about a mathematical genius whose area of working can seem very obscure to a layman. But also because, to do justice to the subject, the author had to bring alive a vanished world. A world that we have only tenuous links to. The world of the colonial India and a British empire that was still at the height of its powers.

The best part about this book is that not only is a vanished world brought alive but also that the two men who are the main characters in the narrative – Ramanujan and Hardy, from two wildly different worlds, come across as almost in flesh and blood. And if you are put off by the fear that this book may contain reference to some arcane mathematics – perish the thought. Even if you don’t know who Pythagoras was, you would enjoy the book as much as if you knew who he was.

The story is incredible in itself. An untrained genius waiting to be recognized in the dusty backlanes of Madras, who on his own, rediscovered two centuries of western mathematics working with a slate and a few rags of paper. A man who abhorred proofs, preferring to work out solutions in his head. A man whose astonishing leaps of intuition baffle mathematicians to this day. And a man who eventually would come to influence the modern mathematical world like few following him.

On the other side a man who embodies the best in English education. A man whose talent was recognized early on and who got all the advantages of that time. A man who was considered a genius in his own right. A man who was as eccentric as he was fiercely unconventional.

The unlikely meeting of these two men, leapfrogging geographies and more importantly prejudices, resulting in some of the most exciting and original works is considered a romantic lore in the world of science. And that story is told with love here – right from the genesis to the tragic end

The personality of the two men also determined the way the partnership progressed. Ramanujan, always in need of a hassle free environment and in need of professional validation was tailor-made for the mentorship of Hardy, who was selfless in promoting Ramanujan and who took care to nurture the genius in the Indian.

But the tragic part of the story was also probably largely due to their

personalities (and also due to the war – WWI). The unravelling of a partnership, which, if it had survived for some more years, could have yielded who knows what revelations, is a story in itself.

As you move through the pages, you are struck by the care and love with which the author has studied the people populating the book; by how much the author has immersed himself in the world that they lived in – from rustic and warm Madras to the ramparts of cold and forbidding Cambridge. You get to know the two men – Ramanujan and Hardy quite well before we come to the meat of the story. The telling of the story never flags in its pace and you can understand the race against time that Ramanujan must have felt when was working in Cambridge. At times the book almost reads like a thriller!

Robert Kanigel puts care in the way he portrays his characters. He does not mythify them and does not try to gloss over drawbacks in the two men. He takes care to nurture the grey part of his characters, which is what mainly makes the story comes alive – none of his characters seem one-dimensional.

The best biographies are those in which you can breathe the air that the characters breathe and you understand why they did what they did, even if you are culturally and historically removed from them. And the best of them are the ones which you enjoy even if you don’t relate to the subject matter. If that’s the yardstick taken, this book would rank right there at the top.

 

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