Humble Book Review: The Art of War

Sun Tzu’s overall assertion in The Art of War is that a warrior is wise to not engage in conflict at all. And if winning a war without conflict is not possible, then you must analyse the conditions, and develop strategies in such a way that defeating the enemy is the only outcome.

It is interesting to read through this seed of a book, planted 2000 years ago. The teachings from Sun Tzu’s collection of inscribed bamboo strips has blossomed into countless real war strategies for many diverse military leaders, and also used in a myriad of fictional works in film, television, books, and plays.

While the details listed in The Art of War may not be pertinent to today’s military leaders – the concern for managing resources for ten thousand foot soldiers in formation isn’t relevant with today’s technology, for example – the underlying message of steadying your own position to make it impenetrable, while scoping for the enemies weaknesses is what determines the success of any war.

The great things about this book is that it carries with it an air of timelessness. It seems that humans will always be in conflict and waging wars with one another. His teachings will remain relevant for a very long time.

And of course, this isn’t just a guidebook for plotting military strategies, or understanding historical wartime strategies better – The Art of War has been used very effectively in a metaphorical sense. Some of the most high profile people in business, including CEOs, refer to the allusions this book teaches, to better their position in the workplace.

For me, since I’ve seen nearly every strategy mentioned in the book played out either in fiction or in known historical events, there was not much that was new to me, or that wasn’t obvious. But like looking at a decorated war veteran’s aged photo of his first day being enlisted, it is interesting to see where it all began.

Grab a copy of the amazing Penguin Pocket Hardback version here.

Humble Book Review: Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents is a brilliant summation of most of his former works. His explanations for human nature involving the id, the ego, and the super-ego structure pairs up with the individual’s struggle to exist in a civilization.

According to Freud, we are defined by opposing forces Thanatos (death drive), and Eros (sex drive). These internal struggles lead to human aggression, showing itself either internally or externally, depending on the makeup of your idand super-ego. These individual discontents eventually manifest themselves into human aggression on the civilization level, and the question is posed whether we will ever be able to overcome these frustrations.

This was a very engaging read, primarily because it opened up and formally collated many disjointed notions of the world I’ve held before. My thoughts on civilization and my micro-frustrations towards it, along with the way the world is, were only fleeting across my consciousness. But I knew they existed. Having read this text, I can at least bundle them together and assign them as something that we all supposedly go through, which provides more comfort.

Will we ever be able to overcome the aggressions Freud discussed? It’s a weighted question. Given that these aggressions tie to our fundamental human nature, it seems very unlikely to change.

Humble Book Review: Letters from a Stoic

I knew very little of Seneca and of Stoicism before picking up this book, but after further recommendations via Tim Ferriss’s podcast (which you all should definitely be listening to), I jumped right in. What I discovered in Letters from a Stoic was a way of life that I already half-understood and followed even less. But it certainly made me reassess what is truly important.

This ~2000 year old long-form essay, hidden in the guise of a collection of letters to Seneca’s friend Lucilius, forms the basis of the Stoicism movement first introduced by Zeno, some 400 years earlier. Seneca was the first to adequately formulate the central ideas to this movement, which are still quite relevant even in modern times.

Perhaps Stoicism’s main function is the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accordance with nature, and to avoid destructive emotions. In these letters Seneca speaks of endurance, and the power to expect pain and misfortune, to not be as rocked by it when it comes; of freedom from material wealth, and how to not be a slave to money or possessions; and of doing worthy acts, as opposed to merely studying and quoting others, without yourself contributing anything further.

There are some fantastic lessons to be drawn from here, particularly on resistance to setbacks. Seneca advises that everyone should “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”. If you practice poverty every now and then, if it ever should arise in reality, you will not find it too jarring, and will be able to cope much easier. Tim Ferriss actually does commit to this for a week every 3 or 4 months, and I’d like to do the same.

In the end, Seneca provides something quite apart from the usual philosopher fare, that being a set of useful guidelines and advice for daily life, instead of critical analyses of the world and cryptic turns of logic. Even 2000 years on, people who search internally for meaning or load up at the self-help aisle of the library will find much to like about Letters from a Stoic

“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers for more.”

Reading in 2015: Surprises and Great Anticipations

As the year 2015 draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the wild ride that came of it. Personally, I quit my unsatisfying desk job, and decided to move to Beijing for 5 months, ineffectively flailing my limbs as I taught English in a Chinese boarding school. That brought on a whole new tidal wave of challenges, with my learning a foreign language from scratch being the most prominent.

However, something that has remained consistent throughout these new experiences has been my hunger for truly memorable books. No matter where I am, no matter how isolated I feel or how difficult life seems, I can isolate myself even further, locking myself into a book, and use the pages as walls to barricade me from reality. Not that reality is something to be avoided entirely, but it needs to be witnessed from another perspective at times, a perspective that can be found in amazing universes created by gifted authors.

So, with my busy slice of reality, I didn’t take my 2015 reading challenge lightly when I chose to read 20 books. After completing my 20th novel yesterday, I wanted to reflect on the year of literature I’ve experienced; fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary, well-received and shunned. So, here is my list for 2015:

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