Some brief book reviews amongst other updates
I finally finished Proust's In Search of Lost Time in December. The narrator's perspective oscillates between the microscopic - his experience of both subjective minutiae which can snowball into crushing jealousy or ecstatic euphoria, and the macro level changes in the lives of characters as we watch individuals degrade themselves and others in a desperate drive for social advancement. In this sense, I think of as a somewhat of a "quantum theory of gravity for people". Not in the sense that they are always as vain as most characters are in this book, but in the way in which we see the two regimes of internality and social relationships interplay in baffling but twistedly plausible ways.
Niall Ferguson's Kissinger biography was structurally interesting in the way in which it doubled as a history of the early part of the Cold War, as well as an account of Kissinger's life. Which, whatever you think of his later actions (I have no opinion as volume 2 isn't out yet :) is astounding. Born a German Jew and having to flee the Nazis, he escaped to the US only to be drafted into the military and return to Germany as a liberator. The book, as many from times of crisis do, made me wonder about whether it people of similar mettle emerge in other times, or whether they can only be forged amidst social strife and upheaval. It might be telling that it was Kissinger, now 99, was the person giving the keynote speech less than 2 months ago at the World Economic Forum.
I am slowly trudging through Die Welt Von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) by Stefan Zweig1, which is his account of the changes in Europe and particularly Vienna through the end of the Bellé Epoque, through WWI and then the rise of facism. Like Kissinger, the book is really interesting when thinking about stability vs. rapidly changing times and the kinds of people they produce. His horror at what befell Europe during his lifetime (the early 20th century) and especially the way in which was not only a tragic event but also extremely surprising from a contemporary perspective was fascinating. As are his descriptions of how the pathologies of decadence in the Vienna of the old Austro Hungarian empire echo many of those today - the stultification of education, the over-professionalisation and regulation of youth, etc, which are yet almost compensated for by the benefits of such a time of plenty, as manifested for instance in the literary heights someone like Zweig was driven to in such a zealously competative atmosphere of overly studious peers.
I also recently read Anna Karenina. It was decent overall, my favourite parts being the drawn-out but beautiful descriptions of Levin on the farm as well as of Anna's angst, but overall it didn't strike me as a particular masterpiece: he scenes from society were relatively flat, and many of the characters were somewhat caracaturish and not well developed in terms of their motivations.
As an aside, I was also struck struck by how closely this passage describes what irks me with a lot of the argumentation in current rationality and EA style movements:
I just started reading Knausgård's My Struggle (Min Kamp) and, being halfway through the second volume I cannot provide a full evaluation, but I will say what a fantastic book thus far. Often compared to Proust2, but transposed into a 21st century context which is in many ways more interesting and painful as the narrator is forced to deal with and describe the picturesque mundanity of growing up in Norway, his alcoholic father, andsudden move to Sweden. How can a story be so crushingly bleak and also in many places hilarious.
What a stupid, bloody idiotic country this was. All the young women drank water in such vast quantities it was coming out of their ears, they thought it was ‘beneficial’ and ‘healthy’, but all it did was send the graph of incontinent young people soaring. Children ate wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bread and all sorts of weird coarse-grained rice which their stomachs could not digest properly, but that didn’t matter because it was ‘beneficial’, it was ‘healthy’, it was ‘wholesome’. Oh, they were confusing food with the mind, they thought they could eat their way to being better human beings without understanding that food is one thing and the notions food evokes another.
My Struggle, Vol 2.
Some other books I tried and failed to read recently (my anti-portfolio so as to speak) --
Ulysses - the book I was supposed to like... I know many of the locations in Dublin and the vernacular (ah, you'll be grand). And yet something just didn't click for me. To be attempted again...
Madame Bovary - sorry, I was just bored to death after the first hundred pages. Obviously “well written,” whatever that means, but not enough to hold my attention with not much else going on.
The Idiot - I think I may be missing some of the theology motivating it but while I think I got what he was going for in the chunk I did read nothing really affected me strongly.
On to other stuff!
I recently visited the Bay Area for the first time with some friends; we stayed for the first few days in the South Bay where we were honestly bored out of our minds. And we then went to San Francisco, which was one of the nicest places I've ever been. It felt like interesting things were happening and things to do and see and people to meet were in abundance. The homelessness felt like less of an issue than I heard from other sources but possibly we were there at the wrong time? Anyway well worth a visit.
I will be in Zürich for the summer -- if you made it this far reading this and will be near there we should meet up!
Now some other random links, mostly to ML stuff…:
I recently watched of Andrej Karpathy's videos on training neural networks. While I knew most of the topics covered quite well already, I still learned some subtle tricks and it was great to go back to reinforce the basics and hear it explained very clearly step by step -- recommended!
The furore about Lex Fridman's reading list from January continues to live rent free in my head.
as I attempt to read it in German
My eyes nearly popped out of my head when he name-checked not only Proust but also Zweig's book... coincidences, coincidences.