The Books that Stuck with me in 2021

My preferred approach to reading is to take a single topic that interests me and to read a number of different books on it. So this year, I found myself diving deeper into a select number of topics and exchanging my pace of reading for a deeper, more syntopic approach, in the pursuit of uncovering nuances between multiple perspectives and helping me answer some key question on the subject.

So here are the Big Questions I continue to explore and one book from this year that helped me sharpen or otherwise deepen my perspective on the matter.

What happens when we have radically extended life?

Human beings are living longer than ever before. While the U.S. life expectancy decreased last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, our overall life expectancy is nearly twenty more years than the average life expectancy of someone living a century ago. Today’s longevity research enables us to slow down the aging process even further, steering us towards the opportunity to live well above a hundred years. Naturally, who wouldn’t want to? In university, I became fascinated by this growing trend and wanted to understand it from the other side: for those who choose differently, what will it mean to die with dignity? In The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die, Katie Engelhart deftly explores the idea of autonomy around a life almost finished. She offers a history of the contemporary right-to-die movement and manages to lay out all the arguments for or against a “good death” without bias, without reproach, and with heroic empathy in the human stories behind this choice. It only underscored my own belief that as we are gifted with more time, we will all need to think more intentionally about the ends of our lives.

What kind of relationships will we have with artificial intelligence that’s embedded into our lives?

First of all, Kazuo Ishiguro is hands down one of my favorite authors of all time. His earlier work Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels for his characters’ subtly revealed devastation (I won’t spoil any more of it.). In his latest novel Klara and the Sun, he paints a similarly familiar yet dystopian future where intelligent machines play a huge role in our lives. The plot is timely, with children, like Josie, forced to attend school mostly online these past two years. Perhaps they too would have benefited from a companion like Klara to fight loneliness and have an outlet for socialization. The book struck me for Ishiguro’s delicate and haunting writing style just as much as it did for the depiction of a future where our machines go beyond the utilitarian. It makes me wonder, how will our relationships with our machines change in a future where they increasingly fulfill more of our needs ; and how close are we to it?

What is the future of families?

Americans are having less sex than ever before, marrying or cohabitating with partners later in life, and having fewer children. At the same time, women are undergoing egg freezing in record numbers and forgoing the traditional notion of the nuclear family. So this year, I found myself thinking a lot about how community will play an increasingly large role in redefining what family is in the future.

While only tangentially related, I kept coming back to the philosophical underpinnings of Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex which considers the unconscious and conscious factors that contribute to when, how, why, and with whom we pursue physical intimacy. This isn’t a book about sex itself. It’s a book about how feminists have historically reclaimed bodily agency. I didn’t agree with it all; in some ways, it makes a huge miss in distilling sex into something purely rational and denying the role of raw physical desire. But there are lucid moments in it that helped me draw new connections to explain why we are seeing a generation identify as gender fluid, and the omnipotent role of media in learning about intimacy and why platforms like OnlyFans became so popular.

Orienting my reading around Big Questions shaped not just what I read but how I read. These were just three highlights, and 2022 will continue to expand on these and even more Big Questions, including “What is the future of cities in an increasingly remote, decentralized, sustainable world?” “What does a post-college future look like?” “How do we make decisions in an increasingly noisy world?”

If you have recommendations for readings that relate to any of these Big Questions, I welcome them.

Good Reads (So Far) of 2015

The vast majority of my time spent outside of work is dedicated to reading. Long-form blogs, interviews, conference transcripts, and of course, books. They dominate, and it’s a shame I don’t love e-books as much as hard-copy because my wallet and bookshelf space would definitely benefit from going digital.

Alas, I remain stubbornly loyal to reading my books in hard copy. The start of each month marks another series of good reads, some recommended to me; others revolving around my latest obsession or selected from some bestseller or book award short list.

Of the 25+ books I’ve read so far this year, below are my top 5. They range in genre and topic, but each sparked great conversations and enlightenment for something novel.

  1. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Recommended to me by a friend possessing a deep understanding and perspective on intersectionality, racism, and the human experience of being “other”, Americanah is brave and startlingly honest. Adichie uses the protagonist’s experiences as the vehicles by which she weaves some of the most intricate emotions, observations, and indictments of what it means to be a modern citizen in our highly globalized yet still segregated world. I found I could not put it down, and that I identified strongly with some of the protagonist’s experiences with immigration and being a minority. I can’t believe it took me nearly 2 years to discover this book, and for anyone unfamiliar with Adichie, she’s the feminist powerhouse featured in Queen Bey’s song “Flawless“.
  2. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande
    A new favourite author of mine, Gawande is an American surgeon who gained popularity with his first book Complications back in 2002. Better is the second of his three major publications, and in it, Gawande again infuses his deep medical knowledge with his knack for storytelling to ponder how physicians, and all us humans, can strive to be better. He attributes exceptional performance down to three components: diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, and manages to distill some of medicine’s most chaotic moments into meaningful narratives while preserving their complexity. In the same way a surgeon has a moral obligation to continuously strive for better provision of health care, I finished this book with a profound sense that all of us can and should indeed strive for betterment.
  3. How to Create the Mind, Ray Kurzweil
    I came across Ray Kurzweil while reading a Bloomberg profile on Bill Maris, the precocious head of Google Ventures, back in the spring. In the article, Maris speaks with calculated fervidness on the prospect of living to the age of 500. To do so, Maris and futurists like Kurzweil portend the “Technological Singularity”, a term coined to describe the moment when computers outpace human abilities, resulting in the capacity for humans to transcend biology using such new technologies. Kurzweil’s seminal work, The Singularity is Near (2005), can do better justice in outlining such predictions, but after slogging through the Singularity, I picked up How to Create the Mind in hopes that a better background in both human and artificial brain functions and limitations would help frame my understanding of all his futuristic ideas. And it did…sort of. Create the Mind is definitely more digestible, and gives you a peek into how our brains can inspire the future’s digital brains.
  4. Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston
    I’m weirdly obsessed with reading book reviews. I’m particularly fond of the ones in The New York Times, and I stumbled upon Johnston’s debut novel from reading Eleanor Henderson’s review on it. Reading the synopsis, it would be easy to dismiss Remember Me as another tale on child kidnapping or victimhood. However, the further I got along the book, the clearer it became that this is a story entirely focused on family and the unimaginable lengths we’ll go to protect and accept those we love.
  5. Zero to One, Peter Thiel
    I’d imagine that even if you are not plugged into the start-up or tech world, you know of or have heard of entrepreneur extraordinaire Peter Thiel. At the very least, you’ve heard of his company PayPal (and maybe even of Palantir). Zero to One is 2015’s Lean Startup – a must-read on any budding founders’ and creators’ short list. Truly revolutionary companies and products seeking to shape the future should aim for zero to one growth, and although I was a bit turned off by his disparaging tones on even the semblance of convention, Thiel’s broad concepts on building transformative businesses provided some interesting color on the reasons for their success.

Currently enjoying Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars, but I’d love to know: what have been your favourite books of 2015 so far?